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Do you stick to the rules?

How do you handle an employee who oversteps the mark? GRAHAM JONES examines the science behind rule breaking and discusses committing ‘own goals’ in business.

"Rules were made to be broken" – that's what my Dad told me when I was a child and I caught him doing something wrong.

He would also tell me, "When I'm right, I'm right, but when I am wrong, I am right because I am your Dad." There was one set of rules for my father and one set of rules for me as his son.

In my varied career, I have worked with many people who have had their own peculiar views of the rules. One individual was often keen to bend the rules on the basis of a personal philosophy, which he would summarise by explaining "you only discover new ways of doing things when you break the rules”.

I am sure you have also worked with people who have their own way of dealing with ‘the rules’ including individuals who completely ignored them. Bending and breaking the rules is not the sole domain of politicians.

Indeed, businesspeople in varying sectors have gone to prison for a variety of reasons, such as fixing interbank interest rates or fiddling with the emissions of the cars they manufacture. The one thing these criminals all had in common was a blatant disregard for the rules!


Researchers on business ethics point out that the incidence of rule-breaking and being prepared to bend the rules is rising. More people are willing to break the rules nowadays than ever before.

One argument, of course, is that if the people in power break the rules, then why shouldn't we?

"That's how you can break the rules and chase innovation and creativity, by focusing on what bre`aking the rules would do for others."

If a company's CEO bends the rules on claiming expenses, what's stopping more junior staff from copying the behaviour? It's common to think that we break the rules just because other people are doing the same, however, it isn't true.

The psychology of morals and ethical behaviour has been well researched and it shows that on average, we try to stick on the right path. What appears to be happening is that it is easier to break the rules these days than it was in the past.

Clues to this came from interesting research conducted 10 years ago at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. One study demonstrated that computers were enabling us to break more rules. At the same time, using computers also appeared to interfere with our morals.

In other words, computers make it more likely that we will break the rules at the same time as making it less likely we perceive the rule-breaking as a problem. That’s a powerful social problem to consider in this increasingly digital age!


Further research suggests that we appear to justify rule-breaking on the basis that it is legitimate for our purposes.

US psychologist Tom Tyler, from Yale University is widely regarded as a leading authority on why we obey or break the rules. His research has shown that we do not fear being caught or punished.

Indeed, the concern over the perceived risk of getting found out or caught for breaking the rules appears in only around 5 per cent of rule-breakers. What the Yale research shows is that people obey the rule when they respect the authority of the people or organisation setting those rules.

In other words, if you need staff in your business to stick to the rules, it isn't the rules or the punishment for breaking them that matters. The crucial factor is ensuring that the individual setting the rules is respected. Then, they are much less likely to want to break the rules.

When you find that employees are happy to break the rules or are using technology to help them cover up their rule-breaking, you ought to ask yourself, "why don't these people respect the rule-maker?"

It is the perceived legitimacy of the business or individual that sets the rules, which makes it likely that people don't break them. The words ‘respect for the law’ do, indeed, sum it all up.


In business, however, we have a problem.

How can you innovate, for example, unless you break some rules? How can your business be creative without ignoring the rules?

A clue to what's important here comes from one study of hospitality workers, which showed four main reasons for rule-breaking. Two reasons were ‘pro-social’. In other words, we appear to be prepared to break the rules we respect if, in doing so, it can help other people.

That's how you can break the rules and chase innovation and creativity, by focusing on what breaking the rules would do for others.

Do you score own goals?

The FIFA World Cup contest began amid controversy dating back 12 years ago when Qatar was awarded the right to host the games.

The footballing authority FIFA may have thought that Qatar's investment in the game might increase the popularity of football in the Middle East. The millions of dollars coming their way, which they could use to improve the game worldwide, may have also been a lure.

But the decision to host the contest in Qatar was a clear ‘own goal’ - much like the decision to ban alcohol when your main sponsor is a brewer.

Recently in the UK, following the statement from the new Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, the respected independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said that the Government had to deal with its own "economic own goals".

Wherever you look, own goals are commonplace. Whether it is politicians, organisations or business leaders, there are plenty of examples of people thinking they are doing the right thing, only to discover they are having the opposite impact to what was expected.

Beneath the surface

The underlying issue behind business-related own goals is the avoidance of risk analysis.

When we believe we are on the right track, we are convinced we are right. Why would we assess the risk when we ‘know’ there is not much risk in what we are doing?

Except we do not know there is little risk!
We are making an unconscious assumption.

I see this in businesses that have decided to go a particular route with office software, for example. They might have chosen to use the Microsoft 365 ecosystem rather than the Google Workspace option. Often, the reasoning behind that is that Microsoft is more ‘corporate’ and there is often an assumption that, as a result, it is more secure and reliable.

However, for some organisations going with one office suite rather than the other can be an ‘own goal’. The office system you choose has an impact on productivity, staff motivation and on your customers.

Just look at all those comparisons of the available office suites, and you will see that the decision as to which is best is always ‘it depends’. I have seen organisations make the wrong decision based on assumptions or costs and find they are not as productive as they wanted.

Getting out of that is difficult once you are wedded to a system, so the own goal is persistent.

Assessing the risks of anything for a business doesn't just mean considering the cost impact, what other people say, or what you think or assume. For instance, although many companies decide between the Microsoft and Google ecosystems, there are plenty of options which may avoid an own goal.

Learn from the errors of others

When you look at the World Cup, there has been a lack of risk analysis. There is a risk to the tarnished reputation of FIFA, but there is also a risk to Qatar as the world gets an increasingly negative view of the country. The lure of cash and being in the global spotlight was too much; it would seem, leading to a lack of objective risk analysis.

We all make own goals, some worse than others, but when we do, it should be a reminder that we did not adequately analyse the risks of our decisions.

And sometimes there is a greater risk in doing something than not doing it – which can be a difficult lesson to learn.

It’s time to review your business and identify where you may be scoring ‘own goals’. When it comes to rectifying any issues that you observe, don’t be afraid to break a few rules – so long as you measure your approach.

More reading:
Is your business really future-proofed?
From little tweaks, big savings grow
Don’t forget to KISS: The value of keeping it simple
Online retailers benefit from using phones
Irresistible tactics for busy people
Your retail statistics are hiding the truth


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Graham Jones

Contributor •

Graham Jones studies online behaviour and consumer psychology to help businesses improve website success. Visit:

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