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When to Encourage Deviant Behavior at Work

By Paul Johnson

621 words. Abstract: When employees don’t follow the rules, what can you do? Considering their color can give you the answer.

Policies and procedures, processes and standards. Every company has rules to be followed to ensure that expectations are met and disappointment is avoided. But when is it OK for employees to deviate from these rules, if ever?

After we were married, I learned that my wife has rules.

  • Toothpaste tubes are squeezed from the end only.
  • Clothes go on hangers facing the left.
  • When the toilet is not in use, the seat must be DOWN.

While these rules seemed somewhat arbitrary, I was eager to adopt these new standards of behavior because I didn’t want to disappoint her. She had expectations for me, and I am willing to follow these rules to keep her happy — still.

She soon discovered I had a few rules of my own. These, of course, were much more logical and well thought-out, or so they seemed to me.

  • Turn your wheels when you park on a hill.
  • Get a copy of anything you sign.
  • Never discard my beer bottles that aren’t COMPLETELY empty.

Decades later, we still get along fine.

Confusion Rules
In business, rules help us avoid costly mistakes. They enable us to fulfill the expectations of our customers and co-workers. Rules allow us to replace confusion and disappointment with consistency, stability and satisfaction. If rules are so wonderful, why would we ever want to deviate from the norm and break a rule?

We can observe that rules are logical, plainly needed and completely obvious to the person who makes them, but not necessarily to everybody else. All rules have an underlying reason — and sometimes many reasons — for their existence. Sometimes these reasons are simple and other times they are complex and even arcane. Problems occur when all rules are treated as black-and-white. Performance at your company will improve when leadership makes it clear which rules are made to be broken.

Red Looks Black-and-White
Steve Cohn, a customer experience expert at People to People Learning, points out the difference between Red Rules and Blue Rules. “Red Rules are those that cannot be broken under any circumstances ever. They usually have to do with safety, health and legal. Blue Rules are everything else. You can bend them if it means making the customer happy and it doesn’t cost the company an enormous amount of money.”

The Red Rules are those black-and-white rules where deviation can’t be tolerated. Blue Rules reflect preferred standards that should be strived for. But if Blue Rules are meant to be broken on occasion, it’s critical that these rules come with additional information; specifically, the intent behind the rule.

  • What greater good is the rule intended to achieve?
  • What expectations does the rule attempt to ensure?
  • What will disappointment cost us as a company?

Once employees are clear on the proper ways to interpret and apply Blue Rules, they are then qualified to deviate from the letter of the rule when conditions warrant.

Rule Intent
Rules are important to the success of both business and personal relationships, but don’t get sucked into believing that, “A rule is a rule.” Some rules should be held firm, and others need to bend. Make it clear which are the Red Rules, the rules that must be adhered to with no exceptions. After all, when you hear your wife splashing around in the dark, it’s too late to put the seat down. The rest of the rules then become bendable rules, the Blue Rules that carry implied flexibility.  Make sure everyone who must apply a Blue Rule understands the intent behind the rule. When that happens, employees feel empowered to always do the right thing, and deviant behavior won’t be so unwelcome after all.

© 2009 Paul Johnson. All rights reserved.

Paul Johnson is the keynote speaker who describes his approach to transformational leadership at http://TroubleBreaker.com. His company, Shortcuts to Results LLC, collects business shortcuts and shows clients how to find and apply them for performance improvement at http://ShortcutsToResults.com.

Note: This article is available for reprint at no charge. We only ask that you include our copyright notice in your reprint, along with the About the Author information we provide at the end of the article.

A Question for your Comments: What rule do you routinely bend, and why?

Posted: under Managing Change (Leadership).
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