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Breaking the Rules

Effective followers assume responsibility for learning the rules of the system in which they operate. Rules are created as guidelines for using the group’s resources, as methods for orderly decision making, as assurances of fairness, as clarification and guarantees of expected standards. Rules are the agreements by which the group maintains its identity, expresses its values, and coordinates its activities. An effective follower understands the rules and knows how to get things done within their framework.

Courageous followers also recognize the subordinate relationship of rules to purpose. They are alert to the evolution or interpretation of rules that may impede the accomplishment of the organization’s purpose. They have an adult understanding of rules: they support rules when they serve the common purpose and question rules when they thwart the purpose.

Often, if we trace down the source of a rule that seems to violate common sense and obstruct service, we find it is being applied in a way that was never intended. Rules usually evolve in an historical context and, as the context changes, rules need to be reviewed for relevancy. Nothing more quickly tests our patience as customers than an employee telling us we can’t do something that common sense demands be done. We sometimes wonder what is happening to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on customer service programs when we encounter an employee obstinately insisting on “company policy.”

Our attitude toward rules is critical. It affects our relationship to the leader and our response to the leader when questionable orders are issued. The following guidelines may help when we are confronted with rules that seem to thwart the organization’s purpose or clash with its values:

It is not ethical to break rules for simple convenience or for personal gain, but neither is it ethical to comply with or enforce rules if they impede the accomplishment of the organization’s purpose, the organization’s values, or basic human decency.

A courageous follower assumes responsibility in dilemmas where rules impede service and is willing to bend, circumvent, or break the rules to get things done.

When a rule impedes an organization’s ability to give appropriate service, courageous followers do not hide their circumvention but use it as an example of why the rule must be vigorously reviewed.

Followers who find themselves hiding their circumvention of rules should carefully examine their motivations and assumptions. This type of deception is inappropriate in all but the most repressive of climates.

Courageous followers trust themselves, and are trusted by the organization, to be interpreters of the organization’s values when applying a rule to a specific circumstance. Occasionally, at senior levels of government or private industry, we see individuals using the discretion entrusted to them to justify criminal acts. This, of course, is not an act of courage but a betrayal of the trust placed in them by the organization’s stakeholders.