When to Break the Rules at Work – And How to Do It

July 8, 2019

Learn when and how to break the rules at work to make meaningful change.

Most likely, the person or people you admire most in this world broke the rules in some meaningful way.

In fact, that’s likely why you admire them. They broke rules that were the wrong rules, brought in the right rules and made the world a better place. This applies to everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Gandhi to Nelson Mandela.

And it certainly applies to business as well. The people who change the business world the most are the people who break their organization’s or their industry’s rules for how things should be done – and show a better way.

This is all so motivating. And yet, if you are being honest with yourself, have you ever broke the rules in a meaningful way? Have you ever have pushed for something better, chopping through some red tape as you went?

LinkedIn Learning Instructor Bob McGannon wants to help you do that. In his 30 years of experience in project management, he found that "always following the rules" stifles creativity and rarely leads to the innovations necessary to compete in today’s business environment.

But, he also acknowledged that rules are often there for a reason and they work for most situations. Breaking the rules for the wrong reasons hurts organizations and can – if let unchecked – lead to really big problems.

In a clip from his course Leading with Intelligent Disobedience, Instructor Bob McGannon lists the rules of breaking the rules at work.

So, in his LinkedIn Learning course Leading with Intelligent Disobedience, McGannon explains how to – you guessed it – act disobedient intelligently. As part of that, he gave the (somewhat ironic) rules for breaking the rules at work, which can guide you on when and how you should break the rules yourself. 

McGannon's rules for breaking the rules at work are:

1. Only break the rules when absolutely necessary.

Many times, corporate policies and processes slow us down. They make us work a little harder. They can be frustrating.

But those reasons alone aren't enough to break them. And if you really think they are too cumbersome, you should work to change them, as opposing to breaking them.

Instead, you need to have a truly compelling reason to break the rules outright. Maybe it’s preventing you from building a feature you know would add a ton of value? Maybe you have a very limited window to make something happen, it’ll add a ton of value if you hit that window, and the only way you can do it is bypassing a few processes?

These are times when you should break the rules. In other words, they are rare occasions – if you are consistently breaking the rules, you need to seriously reconsider your approach.

“Corporate processes and a good set of guidelines, 95 percent of the time, are going to work just fine,” McGannon said in his course. “You only do this in that small percentage of time when the standard rules aren't going to work.”

2. Don’t break the rules passive-aggressively or secretly. Instead, be transparent about the why and what.

If you break the rules at work, break them out in the open.

Don’t be passive-aggressive, saying you’ll do something one way and then doing it another. Or don’t break the rules in secret and hope nobody finds out.

Instead, be open. Tell your boss why you are planning on breaking the rules.

“You don't do this in stealth,” McGannon said. “You communicate your intent, what you're trying to achieve and how you're seeking to achieve it with intelligent disobedience.”

3. Don’t break the law.

Lastly, we are talking about breaking corporate policies and processes here. McGannon does not recommend breaking the law, ever.

What if you think the law itself is wrong?

Well, then you need to lobby the government or find some way to change it. Breaking the law is never the right approach.

Here’s the bigger point – McGannon believes in processes, to some degree. He believes in corporate procedures, to some degree.

But there are exceptions. When you confront one, sometimes the right thing to do is to break the rules. In those times, if you follow the three rules above for breaking the rules, you’ll break the rules successfully (don't say that too fast).

“These rules help you define constraints, boundaries if you will, for intelligent disobedience,” McGannon said. “If you're a manager, and you can define these for your people, you're empowering your people to generate better outcomes. If you're an employee, you can look to your manager, use these rules, and define your own empowerment.”

Want to learn more? Watch Bob McGannon’s full LinkedIn Learning course, Leading With Intelligent Disobedience.

Videos within the course cover: