In 1963, a young man named Ernesto Miranda was taken into custody by Phoenix police officers. They had very little to go on, but the officers suspected Miranda of abducting and raping an 18-year-old woman ten days earlier. After placing Miranda in a line-up, the officers questioned him for two hours and were rewarded for their work: Miranda admitted to the crime and signed a confession.
There was just one problem. Miranda had been alone during his interrogation, and at no point was he informed that he had the right to legal counsel. Although initially convicted, Miranda’s case eventually made its way to the United States Supreme Court. By a vote of 5 to 4 the Supreme Court overturned the Miranda conviction stating, “The person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he has the right to remain silent and that anything he says will be used against him in court; he must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation, and that, if he is indigent, a lawyer will be appointed to represent him.”
The Supreme Court had just created a bright-line rule.
A bright-line rule, according to Cornell Law School, is a clearly defined standard or practice. It provides straightforward and certain results. The Miranda ruling is one example. If an officer fails to notify a defendant in custody of their rights, then the suspect’s statements are not admissible in court. Plain and simple. Bright and clear.
Most of us, as leaders, could benefit from setting brighter lines in our personal and professional lives. Consider some common examples:
- We might say, “I want to check email less frequently.”
- We might say, “I want to spend more time on training and coaching my team.”
- We might say, “I want to save more for retirement.”
- We might say, “I want to be healthier.”
It’s easy to make these types of promises but they do not create bright lines. It doesn’t take a behavioral psychologist to identify the shortcomings of these statements in helping us change behavior: they offer no concrete actions.
- What does check email less frequently mean? Are we going to “try to be better about it” and hope that works? Will we set specific days or certain times when we will be unavailable? Will we check email on weekends? Will we process emails only on our computers?
- What, exactly, is more time on training and coaching? Is it once a week? Are we implementing a formal training program? How much time are we allotting in the week for this activity? What are we hoping to accomplish? How will we know if we are making progress?
- What does it mean to save more? How much is more—$5, $50, $500? When will we save—every month, every paycheck? What will be our investment vehicle of choice (Roth, 401k, etc.)?
- What does it look like to be healthier? Do we eat more servings of vegetables? If so, how many more? Do we start by eating a healthy meal once per day? Twice per day? Every meal? What about working out and sleeping more?
If something is important to us, then we should establish a bright line for it. Consider the difference between our previous statements and the following alternatives:
- I only process emails between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.
- I meet with my direct reports every two weeks to discuss any concerns that they have about their job and things that need to be improved upon.
- I save $300 a month for retirement.
- I go to the gym Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 7:30 a.m.
These statements make action steps precise and distinct. Nebulous promises rarely, if ever, lead to results and yet they abound in leadership circles. If we want to be leaders who deliver on our goals, then we need to have clarity around what we’re actually trying to accomplish. Bright-line rules will help us do that both personally and professionally.
What’s Next: Consider one aspiration or goal that you have at work or home and create a bright-line rule around it. For example, every Friday from 3 to 4:30 p.m. I will evaluate progress on our strategic plan objectives or every Thursday at 6 p.m. I will take my spouse on a date.