A while ago, I attended a networking event, where someone asked me what my business was about. My reply to her was, “In a nutshell, we teach people to disobey”. Initially, she was shocked, but after thinking it over, she understood that I was not advocating anarchy, but a sensible approach to following rules and guidelines. When it comes to running a business, managements lay down rules, to ensure order and to standardise necessary processes. However, following rules blindly, without any thought, is often worse than no rules at all.

It is important to consider why the rule came about. What problem is it trying to avoid? Will the people affected by it understand the rule? How they will respond to it? Here are some suggestions for deciding when you should follow a rule or disobey it

1. Use common sense
Common sense is rare in the work place. When you come across a rule that does not make sense to you, pause and identify what is your end goal and what you must do to achieve it. If the rule helps you to attain this goal more effectively, then follow it. However, if the rule makes the goal much harder to achieve, common sense may dictate that you vary it.

When breaking a rule it is important to avoid antagonising those who made it more than absolutely necessary. ‘In-your-face’ disobedience often gets you fired. It certainly does not make you popular. So ensure that what you are doing is seen to be interpreting the rule in the light of the particular circumstances, not simply kicking it out of the window.

Imagine yourself in the position of the person who created the rule and ask yourself what would make you sympathetic to – or, at least, understanding of its being broken. Possibly even appear to endorse the rule in general while breaking it on a particular occasion. But do not ask permission to break a rule. It simply won’t be granted.

2. Use your emotional intelligence (EI)

This involves understanding and reacting positively to other people, so having good EI is essential if you are breaking a rule. In a work environment, disobey the rules sparingly, or it becomes merely insubordination. Choose your disobediences carefully, focusing on issues of major importance. When you are going to disobey a rule, figure out a nice way to explain it to those affected – your superiors, colleagues, clients or suppliers. People hate surprises, even what you may regard as pleasant ones. When they get a nasty surprise they react badly, so make sure you have laid the ground well for your controversial action.

It was a rule in a British company that I worked for in the late 1960s that the management dining room was for men only. I had two women senior managers working for me and asked them to go into the dining room and have lunch, which they did. It took a bit of explaining to my Chairman that afternoon that men-only management was a thing of the past but I did so by persuading him that we would be ahead of legislation if we admitted women and so appear an enlightened and modern business. Within days it was universally accepted.

3. Break rules by appearing to endorse them!
If breaking the rules seems sometimes too abrasive an approach, consider modifying or changing them. Look for examples of where your handling of a problem or opportunity seems to be endorsed by the actions of people or companies that others admire. I have used the examples of Mikhail Gorbachev, Richard Branson, Mother Teresa and Eddie Barker as evidence of tactful but firm non-conformists. They didn’t break laws, they changed them. And they always did so for the benefit of more people than their action disadvantaged.

A major rule change that is happening at the moment is the way management informs employees of planned changes in business behaviour. Clever managements do it with questions, not orders. Some managements find this impossible, thinking it is a sign of weakness. Keep an eye open of those who adopt the question method of communicating. They will be paying dividends when the others are out of business.

An early lesson that I learnt from my father, who worked under Winston Churchill during World War II and was known for breaking the odd rule or two, was “Rules are there for the guidance of wise mean and the slavish following of fools”. I use this wisdom daily.

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