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Breaking The Rules: Ensure Rules Are Not Limiting Your Effectiveness

By Claire Laughlin (1901 words)
Posted in Communication Skills on June 20, 2013

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By Claire Laughlin, Consultant & Trainer, Leadership 4 Design

As managers, most of us spend a fair bit of time trying to move our organizations forward by orchestrating behavioral change. We look for ways to enhance some behaviors, while minimizing others. We work hard to create the conditions in which our people can perform at their peak, and in concert with each other, thereby creating satisfaction for the individual and success for the organization. One way to improve our effectiveness in this regard is to look beyond the individual behaviors that need to change, to the rules that govern those behaviors and the patterns that keep them in place. The “rules” are the dynamics, mores and norms that guide us toward using “acceptable” behavior in a wide variety of situations.


Imagine that you and I are having a business meeting in a café. You are seated, and I am approaching the table. Chances are, you will stand, and I will hold out my hand. You will also reach forward, and we will shake hands in greeting, while looking each other in the eye and smiling.


This is a standard greeting ritual. We follow it often. We know our parts. We engage instinctively when we see it. There are social rules that govern this interaction, and we know them well. In fact, we strengthen those rules every time we engage in the ritual, and we feel discomfort when someone breaks the pattern. (Have you ever held out your hand for a handshake and had the offer rebuffed?)


While a greeting as I describe above is a very predictable and standard ritual, there are others that we follow that are less standard and much more subtle- but we learn them and we follow them. Sometimes they work in our favor, and sometimes they don’t. Let me give you an example. In some organizations, meetings start and end on time. They follow agendas and everyone comes prepared. If you were to sneak in late to one of those meetings, or show up unprepared, you would be “breaking a rule” (so to speak) and people would let you know it in some way. Maybe they would shoot you a disapproving glare, or tell you a story about the last person who broke those rules and the fate they suffered, or they might coach you, or even directly confront your behavior. In this manner, they are telling you about the social rules that you are to follow, and helping you do your part in keeping those rules alive and well.


Rules allow us to synchronize our behaviors, and then those behaviors become the context that we read that allows us to play by the rules. It’s a self-regulating pattern. The handshake that I described above is a set of synchronous behaviors. When someone holds out his hand, we read the context called “handshake” and we comply by reaching out in turn. We behave appropriately.  Similarly, the well-run meeting is a set of synchronous behaviors that is also self-regulating. The better the meetings, the more “the players” hold themselves accountable for meeting the standard. 


This is nothing new. We know this instinctively, and the rules actually help us get through the day. But what about when the rules work against us? What about when the rules keep us from performing at our peak, voicing an important concern, making a necessary improvement, or changing a behavior that is destructive in one way or another. For example, in one organization I was told by way of a story, but in no uncertain terms, that I was NOT to work too hard or put in overtime. “This,” my colleague explained, “will make them [the management] expect too much and then we will all be stuck trying to perform at an unsustainable level.” She said, “I did that for years. I put in overtime time and I performed at my peak for them, and I never got the rewards that I deserved. All I got was carpal tunnel and a pay cut when the organization was suffering in a downturn.” The rule was spoken. And, then the rule was held in place by her disapproving glances and mutterings when I did stay late or come in on a weekend. I knew very clearly that I had a choice- either play by the rules or be chastised by my co-worker.


It’s true that you may want to ensure the survival of this kind of rule if you are the employee, but if you are managing a group who abides by this rule, it will be very difficult for you to make your productivity measures or catalyze break-through performance.


In another organization where I worked right out of college, there was an unspoken rule that no one was to ever disagree with the CEO. Right or wrong, if you spoke up in a way that could be perceived as contrary, you would be publicly chastised. All new employees quickly learned that if you wanted to keep your dignity, you wouldn’t do more then fill your limited role and keep your opinions to yourself- especially your opinions about company policies or direction.


In retrospect, I can see that this was an issue related to one person’s ego, but at the time, it felt like a wet blanket being thrown over my creativity. I spent years in that organization trying to fit in, until I began to understand the impact of this limiting pattern. I watched as another employee lost her confidence and stopped speaking up entirely. She became a shadow lurking about because she felt that she needed the job and couldn’t afford to break the rules.


While these are just two stories, I’m sure you can imagine how limiting it is in an organization when the rules dampen the spirit, constrict creative energy and silence diverse viewpoints.


In today’s workplace we cannot afford to do any of those things. Let me be clear: We cannot afford to dampen the spirit, constrict creative energy, or silence diverse viewpoints. Instead, we must find ways unleash the creative potential of each and every individual. This is the pathway to innovation and excellence. But, how?


When you identify a rule that is limiting your organization’s effectiveness, you will be best positioned to make a change if you do these three things: 1) Expose the rules by naming the dynamic. 2) Name the impact of the dynamic. 3) Suggest new behaviors that will have positive consequences for all. Let’s look at each in more detail.


3 Steps to Ensure Rules Are Not Limiting Your Effectiveness


1)   Expose the rules by naming the dynamic.

Think of this as an exercise akin to mapping out dance steps or writing a movie script. You are authoring a story of sorts, and it is your job to describe it in a way that shows the pattern. If, like a scriptwriter, you’d like to expose some of the motivations behind the pattern, remember to name the motivations as positive or at least neutral. This will help you retain your own sense of optimism, and it will also make your message much more palatable to the people involved.


Going back to our first example from above, I might say, “I heard you when you told me that story about how you worked so hard and weren’t treated well. I understand that you have my best interests in mind when you tell me I shouldn’t work weekends and overtime, and it is not my intention to make your job more difficult. I can see how you might disapprove of my behavior, and I can even see it on your face sometimes when you know I am staying late.”


[Note: we are already having a very different conversation then we would be if I had simply asked her to stop muttering under her breath.]


2)   Name the impact.

Often, the players won’t know what the impact of the behavioral pattern is, and when they hear it, they will want to make a change. Prefacing this with a phrase like, “you are probably not aware, but when you say or do XYZ, the impact is…”


Again, going back to our example, I might continue, “And you may not be aware of it, but your disapproval feels uncomfortable for me. I want to have a good working relationship with you, and it is a challenge when I feel like I am stepping on your toes.”


3)   Suggest new behaviors.

It’s tempting to leave the conversation sometimes after steps 1 and 2. We want to believe that the pattern will change, just as a result of new awareness. But most often it doesn’t. Be sure to ask for what you want instead, and remember to make your request something that is “do-able.”


For example, “So, next time I need to work overtime, I’m hoping that you can trust me to make decisions about my work life that are different from yours, and that we can talk about your feelings instead of you just being upset about it. Would you be willing to try that?”


I know this may seem like a lot of words, and it may not seem necessary. Some of you will be able to go through the steps with fewer words. But, if you are able to name the pattern, describe the impact, and suggest new behaviors, you will find that you are well on your way to making lasting change.


{#/pub/images/ClaireLaughlin.jpg}Written by Claire Laughlin, Consultant & Trainer, Leadership 4 Design
As an independent consultant and trainer with 20 years of diverse experience, Claire Laughlin brings a passion for improving relationships, experience in management, and a relentless dedication to transformation to all of her work. She is fully committed to working with individuals, teams, and organizations as they learn and cultivate the habits and practices that make their organizational dynamics healthy and highly productive. Claire's experience spans Leadership to Communication Essentials to Project Management & Customer Service and has designed and taught over one hundred courses at over 60 organizations and seven different colleges and universities. In addition to her consultancy work, Claire directs Cabrillo College's Corporate Training Program.


Do you have a question for Claire?  Please visit our Workplace Communication Skills Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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Comments (1)

Ron Ducharme Jr. posted on: June 22, 2013

I will be the first to say, I break the rules. In fact I enjoy the occasional risk, I sometimes prefer the saying; ask for forgiveness later rather than ask permission.

Rules are there to box people in, for a job like McDonald's. If you're looking to unleash your creative potential, give a set structure for a foundation, and allow the creativity to build on-top of the foundation.

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