When the sordid revelations about the behaviour of some individuals involved in relief work for Oxfam first hit the headlines I was truly shocked. When it then became apparent that this was an issue involving many charities I found it hard to comprehend.

I naively assumed that those working for such organisations would have been above such behaviour, that their moral compass would prevent them from even thinking about taking advantage of people in such desperate circumstances.

Apparently I was wrong.

It also became apparent the culture of some of the organisations involved allowed many of those responsible to get away with what they did. When the Chief Executive of Oxfam, responding to the media coverage of the events, said the criticism was “out of proportion to the level of culpabilityā€¯ it was clear this was a problem that went to the very top of the organisation.

So, did those occupying positions of authority fall into the trap of believing they could trust their team members implicitly and, therefore, allow discipline to slide?

Any article you read on leadership these days will normally focus on the importance of trusting people to do a good job, that micro management is a bad thing and that if you let your team “get on with it” they will repay that trust with greater results. I believe that is true but it doesn’t mean that it should be at the cost of setting boundaries so that everyone knows what is acceptable and unacceptable.

Most new managers fall into the trap of blurring the lines for their team members in an attempt to create a good working environment. They want to ensure they get the best out of the team through praise, encouragement and flexibility and consequently focus on that approach at the expense of setting, dare I say it……..rules.

Studies have proven time and again that, when people come together as a team, one of the key elements to the success of the team is the explanation and implementation of the rules they are working to. Having clearly defined standards, and then enforcing them, is not micro management or interference, it is an essential quality of good leadership.

The problem is, if there aren’t clear rules this leads to discontent amongst the team as each individual expects everyone else to work to their standards and the inevitable bickering and resentment that follows leads to poor team performance.

What do good leaders do to ensure there is a balance?

1 – Set out the non-negotiables

What is compulsory? When Sir Alex Ferguson became manager of Manchester United one of the first changes he made was to introduce a dress code so the players wore club blazers and ties when they were representing the club. He wanted to foster a sense of togetherness and saw this as one way of achieving that so he was prepared to deal with the inevitable resistance to achieve his longer term aim.

2 – Monitor the adherence to the rules

There’s no point having rules if people ignore them so checking adherence is not just reasonable, it should be expected. Take a classic example, timekeeping. In some working environments, call centres for instance, if team members are late or take extra/longer breaks they put more pressure on their colleagues so it’s unfair on the team if some push the boundaries without redress.

3 – Know when to apply the rules rigidly

It’s perfectly acceptable to apply the rules differently with different people, provided there is a good reason. If there is a rule that days off have to be booked at least a week in advance but a team member needs to take time off at short notice, to attend a child’s event perhaps, and they’re someone who regularly goes the extra mile then bend the rules. If there’s someone else who always does the minimum and asks for the same courtesy then be prepared to explain why you won’t do the same for them.

4 – The punishment should fit the crime

Be careful of being too hard on minor transgressions, it will leave you with little space to manoeuvre if more serious problems arise. Using timekeeping as the example again, if someone is a few minutes late and immediately apologises that it was due to unforeseen circumstances then there’s probably no need to even make a point about it. If, however, someone is persistently late then a private conversation to understand why and potentially issue a sterner rebuke would certainly be appropriate.

5 – Balance the discipline with praise

Discipline is the foundation of every great team, but there are many teams who fail to achieve greatness because discipline is overused. Points of discipline are critical but think of it as being the same as the foundations of your house, they need to be in place but you shouldn’t need to take a look at them unless you see cracks appearing in the structure. Your house is a great place to live because of the ambience you create with decoration, furnishings and art. It’s the good stuff that makes the environment enjoyable to be in but the structure has to be in place for it to exist.