Break the Rules? Only After Careful Consideration.

Breaking the Rules

Rules Have Reasons

Rules in organizations are there for a reason.  Someone at some time figured out that there needed to be guidelines in place to govern the situation.  These rules can be formal–procedures written in manuals that have multiple levels of approvals–or they can be informal–all employees start at 7:30, even though work hours are published as starting at 8:00.  Rules are completely fine until they interfere with getting things done.  In some organizations, that rarely happens.  In other organizations, it happens often.  How do you know when you should ignore the rules to get something done, and when do you sacrifice getting things done to follow the rules?

There are 3 factors that can help you make the decision:

  • Risk Management
  • Ethics
  • ROI

Risk Management

What are the consequences of not following the rules?  Remember, the rule is there for a reason.  It is not there to annoy you or to keep you from doing what you’re trying to do.  That may be a consequence of the rule, but there is a bigger reason.  What is that?  What is the rule trying to ensure?  Quality? Safety?  Adherence to law or regulation?  Don’t short circuit this analysis.  Really understand why the rule is in place.  Does not following the rule put the organization at some risk?  What if doing it faster, or short-cutting some steps, risks creating a product with flaws or alienating customers?

What benefit is there to not following the rule?  Does something need to get done in time in order to meet YOUR personal performance goal?  Your group’s goal? Does the organization save money?  Does something get to market in time to generate significant revenue? Making dates is rarely a sufficient reason to break important rules–especially if they are your personal performance dates.  Revenue might be a sufficient reason if there are ways to mitigate the risk.

Who is for and who is against breaking the rule?  Just your organization?  The top of the organization?  This tells you a lot about the significance of the risk and whether you’re in it alone or not.  Try to identify ways to mitigate the risk.  Can you put more resources on following the rule?  Can you fix the issues later?  Will you?


It goes without saying that you shouldn’t break the rules when it is unethical.  Unfortunately, knowing when this line has been crossed can be hard to see when you are in the heat of the moment.  We all like to think that we are really clear on what is ethical and what is not.  The problem with that assessment is that we have different ways of determining what is ethical–

  • What is the balance between bad and good?  What is ethical provides the greatest benefit to the most.
  • What is just?  Is it ‘fair’ to break the rules for the identified purpose?
  • What is best for the common good?

Most of us have problems putting decisions about dates or procedures in these categories.  But what about cost overruns?  Who is the loser?  The shareholder?  The employees?  The customers?  What about short cuts with potential safety issues?  What about doing these things just to ‘make your numbers?’


What is the cost of following the rule v. the cost of breaking the rule?  We tend to make this analysis too shallow.  What if everything that the rule is in place to protect against happens?  What about that cost?  Think about the recent JP Morgan losses?  JP Morgan itself had rules in place that were broken.  The consequences far outweighed the reason for breaking the rules.  Remember the Firestone tire crisis?  Replacement workers manufactured most of the tires that later were identified as defective.  One ROI analysis (labor cost) was done without a thorough view of another ROI (losing customers/potentially causing accidents).

Bottom line

Don’t break the rules lightly.  If they are stupid rules, give them the benefit of the doubt and try to figure out why they were created.  Do a thorough analysis of all consequences before breaking the rules.  Try to figure out how to mitigate the risks.  Try to get buy in all the way up the organization.  The higher up the agreement to break the rules comes from, the more likely that it is truly best for the organization.  This isn’t a guarantee, of course.  It was the top of the organization that made the decisions at Enron.  Don’t make short cuts for short term reasons.

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Filed under Career Development, Executive Development

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