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Why We Violate the Rules, Revisited

In many cases, rules actually produce unintended consequences that are far worse than the behaviors we are trying to shape. Let’s think through this food for thought together.

Posted: May 28, 2014


Several years ago I wrote a column called “Why We Violate The Rules” that was not only a popular article, but also has become a widely requested speech. I must confess that  the topic continues to fascinate me. So many business leaders erroneously believe that rules (and the associated discipline for violating them) drive business performance. Rules, after all, seldom push performance. In fact, in many cases rules produce unintended consequences that are far worse than the behaviors we are trying to shape.

It’s easy to understand why some people don’t follow the rules in general; many times the rules inconvenience us and aren’t truly in our best interest, so if we can get away without following them relatively unscathed, why not disobey them?

But what about rules that are clearly in our best interest? Why do so many people violate safety rules? After all, these rules are in place to save our lives and the lives of our coworkers . . . or, at the very least, to keep people from getting injured. Shouldn’t the basic driving force of self-preservation be enough to keep people from straying from the behavioral path?

In my original article I provide seven common reasons for violating the rules:

  1. Misinterpretation of the Rule
  2. Distraction
  3. It’s Worth It
  4. The Rules Don’t Make Sense
  5. The Organization Fails to Sell the Rules
  6. The Rule Seems Temporarily Unnecessary
  7. The Rule Seems Trivial or Over Protective

The original column explains each of these reasons in detail and, while this list remains valid, it is by no means complete or exhaustive. Let’s face it: people violate the rules for hundreds of reasons, from ignorance to forgetfulness to out-and-out belligerence. From this broad perspective, let’s trod a bit deeper into exploring what it is about some specific rules that become cast in stone while others are rules in name only.

Rules keep things predictable and when we can predict people’s behavior we are less likely to kill them.  From Hammurabi’s Code to English Common Law societies have established norms and consequences to keep the peace and have established procedures and legal remedies when people fail to follow the rules.  In business, rules help eliminate variation and keep us from having to decide how to react to everything from employee attendance to workplace harassment; they help us govern.

There are two different kinds of rules [2]. Values-based rules are the guiding behaviors that are an outgrowth of a population’s shared values. We tend to follow these rules because we believe that not following them is morally wrong, outside our cultural norms, or otherwise intrinsically distasteful.

While I’m fond of saying, jokingly, that the only thing keeping some people alive is the laws against killing them, I honestly believe that most people would not commit murder, or rape, or assault even if it were legal. Values-based rules are followed because they are judged as the right thing to do.

Compliance-based rules are different. We follow them because we don’t want to risk the unpleasant consequences. Many people exceed the speed limit, drive like they have been pithed or violate any number of traffic laws, yet few of them feel like they have done anything morally repugnant. So either most people who violate traffic (or parking laws) are sociopaths or, and I think more likely, they are merely complying when they fear enforcement is imminent.

Violating a values-based rule can turn a person into a social leper and a pariah, but violating compliance-based rules can turn an individual into a folk hero. The basic and essential difference is that people tend to care very deeply about values-based rules and really don’t give a rip about compliance-based rules [3].

Can we really say that something is a rule if over two-thirds of the population ignores it with impunity? There is some precedence in English common law that could be interpreted as saying that if the law (or for our purposes the rule) is neither followed nor enforced, then it is, in fact, not a law at all.[4]

In organizations where an employee is disciplined for violating a rule that over 70 percent of the company also violates, one could construct a pretty solid argument for selective enforcement [5].  So why have a rule that people aren’t going to follow?

Well for one, it makes us feel better. It appeals to the three-year old in all of us who is going to run and tell. It also appeals to the cranky old man in us who shakes his craggy fist at the sky and rails about how there ought to be a law! Like so many other things in safety, it makes us feel like we are doing something of substance when we aren’t really doing anything at all.  And before you say that it “covers your . . . assets,” consider that the widespread failure to comply and likewise failure to enforce opens you up for potential asset damage.

My first instinct is to say throw out rules that are merely compliance-based, unless the compliance is rooted in the law. If your employee handbook is choked with absurd rules that simply try to preserve some bureaucratic idea of the “good old days,” the entire company is better off getting rid of the rules.

But if the rule is something like “don’t use your cell phone or text while driving,” you must change the rule from being a compliance-based rule to a values-based rule. This can be tough with rules like this because the rules are lagging behind societal norms.

For example, any reasonable person (or even a completely unreasonable baboon) can predict that texting, reading emails, dialing phones, or any other thing that distracts from driving will eventually lead to disaster; yet we missed that. As a population, we had to wait until people started dying at an alarming rate; until railroad engineers derailed the trains they were driving and killed scores of people.

Even when this problem reached epidemic proportions, many of us still did these things without killing anyone, or even almost killing someone, so the behavior continued until it became socially acceptable. I don’t have the space here to offer suggestions on how to make the socially acceptable become socially unacceptable, but I promise to revisit the topic and share some tips. I warn you, though: reversing the course is not easy once the genie is out of the bottle.

But then, what other choice do we have?

[1] Technically, this should probably be “value-based” instead of “values-based”; the change is deliberate. I want to distinguish between values as in those deep-seated beliefs that govern our decisions and behaviors versus a rule that we place some sort of contrived value.

[2] I’m sure if I gave it enough thought I could come up with a metric ton of various kinds of rules, but for purposes here let’s just deal with two.

[3] I think that it’s worth noting (and essential to ward off the mouth-breathers) to point out that the two types of rules need not be mutually exclusive. One can follow a rule because it is deeply ingrained in one’s values and because one fears enforcement.

[4] I’m not a lawyer, I have no license to practice law, (although I often lie about being a lawyer to impress women) and anyone who construes this as legal advice is so stupid they are probably worth more to society in parts.

[5] The practice of using the rules to persecute individuals who you dislike or to mask discrimination against a protected class.

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