Should You Break the Rules at Work?

by Stephen Mills on October 17, 2010

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The short answer is yes.  We are socialized from infancy to follow rules.  Most of us spend a couple of decades in school submitting to authority and doing what we are told.  When we go out into the job world nothing changes.  We believe we are being paid to be told what to do.

“Most of us feel screwed, and many of us feel helpless to change it.  We have become slaves to our infrastructure – to business’s controlling tools, procedures, and mandates.  Something’s got give.” —  Bill Jensen and Josh Klein

If you put as much time thinking creatively about how to hack your work as you do dreading and complaining about it, you would be a lot better off.  Bill Jensen and Josh Klein have written a new book called Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results.  I gave it 4 out of 5 stars, but all other 7 reviewers have given it 5 out of 5.  If you are interested in getting more out of your job, I think it is a worthwhile read.

Some of us, myself included, are natural born rule-breakers and having been doing it all our lives.  However, my observation is that the vast majority of people follow the vast majority of rules.  The world has changed and the top-down dictatorial business approach is a hold-over from an era that is long gone.  The tools and procedures provided by your company cannot keep up with the rapid changes going on all around you.  Who hasn’t lamented the fact that the software and technology they use at home is far ahead of what they are provided at work?

The simple fact of the matter is you should be looking out for yourself when it comes to your job.  Individual people in your company might want to be loyal to you, but the reality is they can’t.  The world is a very flat and competitive place and if they can improve the bottom line by getting rid of you they will.  A career of following inefficient and bureaucratic rules will not save you.  You will get ahead by producing results.  Blindly following the rules and being a “good employee” means you will lose out in both results and your personal growth to those who chose to break them.

You shouldn’t cheat your company.  You shouldn’t do anything unethical.  You should produce the results you are paid to do.  Outside of that though, I think you owe it to yourself to be the most productive you can be, to exercise the most control over what you actually do, and spending the least amount of time possible to get it done.  Don’t follow rules simply because they exist and because everyone else is doing it.  Within the limits just described, how you get your job done should be up to you.

You are investing an enormous amount of your time, personal resources, and frankly your health in your job.  You absolutely owe to to yourself to get a return on that investment and any company who thinks otherwise isn’t worth your time.

I’m convinced that most people have far more control over how their work gets done than they believe.  Most people have simply accepted the rules by default.  They don’t realize how easy it is to work-around most of them.  Even if they do realize it, they are paralyzed by fear.  What you should be afraid of is becoming irrelevant or outsourced to a cheaper rule follower.

You can usually work different hours, use different tools, and bypass most procedures if you will only take charge of your own job and empower yourself to work differently.  If you wait for somebody to empower you, you will be waiting a very long time.  There’s an old saying that it is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.  I wholeheartedly agree, but going even further I think you mostly don’t have to ask for either.  If you produce results and do great work, you usually don’t have to ask for anything.

What do YOU think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.


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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Gunny October 17, 2010 at 11:46 pm

This is a very good article. The only problem with it is that ninty percent of the people are worker bees and the others are already doing what you are suggesting. I agree with everything you have said but getting the biggest part of the people will not change their ways.


Hunny October 18, 2010 at 5:09 am

everytime I want change my minds at work, but, the heavy works make me do things to by ruels.


John D. Buerger, CFP® October 18, 2010 at 10:21 am

Sad but true that our education system (archaic as it is) was developed to give big corps and a growing factory base a slew of workers who would be obedient and do what they’re told. We still use that same system today.

Nature has it that a vast majority of our species will defer to others to guide them. The 80-20 rule is as much instinct as it is indoctrination.

Stephen – my only correction might be to focus less on “productivity” and more on “value.” If you are providing greater value to your employer’s customers or the employer itself than you are being paid, you will always be gainfully employed. If you prefer the entrepreneurial route, the same rule applies – only somebody else is not leveraging your work for their profit.
John D. Buerger, CFP®´s last blog post ..Key to Wealth


Fran October 19, 2010 at 11:53 pm

This is the way I would not it too. I love to do things my own way. I love to read your articles and this is one of my favorite.


Nea | Self Improvement Saga October 20, 2010 at 2:17 pm

You’ve given some pretty solid advice here. The only thing I’d add is that, for those interested in remaining employed, it’s often better to work towards changing the rules instead of breaking them. Even if you have to go against the grain to make career moves that will payoff, you’re better off doing so in a way that doesn’t piss off the people who like to see their rules as flawless. That’s where the politics of the workplace come in. Personally, I think open-minded people who aren’t your typical worker bee are best as entrepreneurs. Then you make the rules instead of finding ways to work around them.
Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog post ..Inspirational Words- Making Choices


Jamie October 27, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Yes. I brake the rules all the time at work. I stick my nose into things it does not belong and I think for myself. I think this is where I am different than other workers. I like to make things better and the other workers only do what they are told and nothing more. I am a thinker bee not just a worker bee.


Henway November 6, 2010 at 8:48 pm

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Vision33r January 9, 2011 at 4:10 am

While 20% of those don’t obey the rules, the other 80% is working hard looking out for the company and trying to impose the same mentality at others. This will often create conflicts of interests at work.

I once was told to pick up all phone calls to this number along with 2 other folks. One person slacks off and we all look at each other and wonder why we are still picking up calls when the slacker is not working. The person claims to be on a break. But in today’s world, there’s no such thing as a break anymore, defined by people who work too hard for the company.


S Williams April 9, 2013 at 4:09 pm

Nice topic! I’m definitely a rule breaker, but I would say that you have to be prepared to deal with the backlash of not following certain rules. There are so many worker bees who will not only follow ALL of the rules relentlessly, but also make sure YOU follow them as well. And if you don’t…well let’s just they will be coming for you, lol.

It reminds me of the Matrix movie “…You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it”.
S Williams´s last blog post ..Creating a Blog for Dummies and New Mommies


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