The 5 Times You’re Allowed to Break the Rules at Work

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Heather K Adams734
Content + Copy Writer
June 12, 2024 at 10:6PM UTC
Sometimes it's good to buck the status quo a little. Or, you know, throw the rules right out the window. As in life, so in the workplace: the trick to breaking the rules is knowing when to do it, and how not to go too far.

Why you should break the rules.

Innovators are rule breakers, in general. Choosing not to adhere to standard modes of behavior or thinking is exactly how those folks make great leaps of brilliant insight and invention. Science, medicine, the arts, business: neither genius nor daring entrepreneur bats an eye at breaking the rules.
Yet what about us lowly mortals, just punching a clock and trying to find our way?
Women are still in danger of internalizing the old rules, the ones that say toe the line, keep your hands folded in your lap and your opinions to yourself. But how does that saying go? A well-behaved woman never toppled an empire? Something like that. A little rebellion, now and then, is good for everyone.
Breaking the rules doesn't have to be an exercise in daring, however. All it really requires is a simple change in thinking. Instead of going along with the way things have always been, get in the habit of asking ,"Why?" and also, "Why not?"

5 times breaking the rules makes sense.

1. When there are no (explicit) rules given.

This is an exercise in managing your mindset, because it's about questioning "tradition." If there are no codified rules about how to do a given piece of work, then what you have are habits. "Everyone does it this way because that's the way we've always done it." 
Challenge yourself to do better than that. Put genuine thought into how a project might be completed with more efficiency, or a milestone reached with better results. Break the rules in a studied and practical fashion, and excellent things can happen.

2. When you're in charge.

Why not try to steer the ship in a way that makes sense to you? Sure, when you're in charge of a particular group or project, you will have a set of necessary guidelines to stick to. But what about those unwritten "rules"? The ones that, again, adhere to a nonsensical sense of "that's the way we've always done it"?
Question all of them! Create a routine and a momentum that works for you and everyone around you. Tailor your process to your goals and needs in the moment, and you might be surprised at how much better your ship starts running. You could end up tackling goals well ahead of schedule, and exceeding all expectations.

3. When the old ones only hold you back.

Once upon a time, we were supposed to wear skirts and make the coffee for the boss. Today we are the bosses. The boys club is being eroded by women who won't be told what to wear, how to act or what they can and can't do. Women breaking the rules is how we got here.
Breaking the rules is something you can, and even should, do when the rules simply no longer work. Apply this mindset to daily practical concerns by looking at what you and your coworkers carp about most. Is your ordering system inefficient, your on-boarding training out of date? Do something about it by doing something differently. Break the old rules. Make new ones.

4. When you get the green light.

Because breaking the rules can be done with permission. Have an idea of how to change or improve X, Y or Z? Turn the idea into a well thought out proposal you give to your boss. You might actually get the chance to try your new idea out on the ground.
If your boss shoots you down, pay attention to the why. Did your proposal need more work, should you improve your pitching skills? Or are you being shown that your company's culture doesn't embrace that level of input from its employees? 

5. When breaking the rules makes more sense than following them.

If you're wasting time attending endless after endless pointless meetings, skip them. If your boss brings this up, be ready to make your case about how much more productive you've been after making that power move. Having quantifiable results to show for all the time you've put to better use is the best way to show your boss that by breaking the rules you're actually doing her a favor.

How to break the rules.

  • Know your motivation. Is it personal convenience, or boredom? Don't break the rules just for the sake of breaking them.
  • Know your workplace. If it makes sense to follow the unwritten "rules" or traditions, then do it. Again, don't rebel just because you feel causing a stir.
  • Know the limits. Test the edges of your position and your authority... and then find a stopping place. Unless you're the owner, it isn't your place to continually question how things are done.
  • Know when to stop trying. Are you trying new things and taking innovative approaches in an environment that simply doesn't welcome them? That's not worth your time or effort. Don't over-invest yourself in a company that doesn't return the favor.

When not to break the rules.

  • You were told no. Respect authority and also boundaries. An explicit "don't do that again" is something you need to pay attention to. A loose cannon in the office does more harm than good.
  • When things are working fine. Again, don't break rules just because you feel like it, or to see if you can. That's selfish, and goes against everything that breaking the rules really stands for.
  • When doing so will hurt someone else. If the rule you're thinking of breaking could land you in the hot seat, think twice. If it could get someone else in trouble? Don't even think about it at all.
  • When breaking the rules takes more work than following them. Because some rules really do make sense. It's silly to waste your time working around something that's perfectly practical.

Final thought

Breaking the rules at work should always be in the name of innovation and improved efficiency, of creating better and faster results. Those are the hallmarks of a stellar professional reputation. Don't be afraid to break a few rules, in the right way, to get there.

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