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Radhika Panjwani is a former journalist from Toronto and a blogger.

Most employers value workers with an inherent tendency to follow company rules, but a recent study from the University of British Columbia reveals, in some instances, there are upsides to having rule-breakers in the payroll.

Organizations that foster cultures where employees feel supported and have the psychological safety to speak up and challenge a rule, enjoy greater trust, cooperation, creativity, customer service and innovation, say experts.

Research on workplace deviance assumes workers engage in aberrant behaviours such as stealing, taking longer breaks than allowed or harbouring malicious intent, purely out of self-interest.

However, the UBC research discovered not all rule-breakers have sinister motives. Some ignore organizational rules for prosocial reasons: to perform one’s responsibilities more efficiently; to help a co-worker; or to provide good customer service, says Su Kyung (Irene) Kim, a lecturer at UBC and author of the study titled Breaking rules yet helpful for all: Beneficial effects of pro-customer rule breaking on employee outcomes.

“Sometimes, for service employees, the rules may be at odds with trying to fulfill both the organizations’ expectations [for appropriate behaviour] and customers’ expectations for exceptional service,” Ms. Kim says. “Companies could ensure some rules remain flexible so employees can have greater autonomy in how they serve their customers. This will prevent workers from feeling breaking the rules is the only way to serve customers in dynamic situations.”

For their research, she and Wilfrid Laurier University professor Yujie Zhan, conducted two studies. In one, participants were asked to imagine themselves as customer service employees at a dance studio. In a hypothetical situation, a parent wanted the discounted rate for enrolling their children to a dance program past the deadline. The organizational rule was staff would be breaking the rule if they gave the discount. The study participants had to respond to the customer and report their experience, feelings and behavioural intention.

Better job satisfaction

In the second study, the researchers surveyed employees working in customer service jobs and asked them to share a situation where their customers’ needs or demands were unusual, so much so, it would have been difficult for an employee to help the customer while abiding by the organization’s rules.

“Approximately half of the participants in both studies reported engaging in pro-customer rule-breaking,” Ms. Kim says. “Across the two studies, we found employees who broke a rule to help customers felt more autonomous, competent and connected to their customers.”

The rule-breakers were also less emotionally exhausted, more satisfied with their jobs and more likely to voice concerns, ideas and suggestions to improve prevailing rules and practices, she says.

“Employees who engaged in pro-customer rule breaking did not report experiencing more guilt compared to those who did not engage in it,” Ms. Kim says. “We posit rule-breaking gave employees a sense of autonomy and highlighted their prosocial intention to help or better serve customers.”

In sectors where compliance with health and safety related rules is paramount, compliance to rules is necessary, Ms. Kim notes.

Speak up culture

Companies must trust people to speak up and consider breaking rules when the rules don’t support the team and those they serve, said Stephen Shedletzky, founder of Shed Inspires, a Toronto-based leadership coaching business.

He says some rules are necessary for ethical, moral and regulatory reasons, but some others are created as a blanket rule or policy in response to one past incident and may end up wreaking havoc and red tape for future situations. It’s these rules that must be examined and often broken because they get in the way.

“If we punish people for trying to make improvements to serve each other and customers better, innovation, organizational health and results will fall,” says Mr. Shedletzky, the author of the soon-to-be published Speak-Up Culture: When Leaders Truly Listen, People Step Up. “Equip people to do their jobs and trust and listen to them when they have ideas to make things better.”

Mr. Shedletzky says leaders must do two things to create a speak-up culture: first they must encourage people to speak up and then reward them for doing so, especially when the things that are shared may be hard to hear.

“When team members feel it’s safe and worth it to speak up and challenge a rule, we get greater trust, cooperation, creativity, customer service and innovation,” he said. “Conversely, when employees feel unsafe to challenge a rule, it can lead to apathy and disengagement. And in some instances, because employees fear making a change, they follow the rules even if doesn’t make sense so as not to get in trouble themselves.”

Case in point: In 2017, a United Airlines passenger David Dao was forcibly dragged off an overbooked flight by Chicago Department of Aviation security officers, resulting in a broken nose, two missing teeth and a concussion.

“This instance is likely a sign of both: rules that make no sense and employee cultures where people don’t feel safe breaking the rules to do the right and sensible thing,” Mr. Shedletzky says. “The United employees and security officers were likely just following the rules and subsequently were fired.”

What I’m reading around the web

  • This Medium story offers helpful advice on using the Pareto Principle to become a more effective leader. The Pareto Principle states if 20 per cent of your effort leads to 80 per cent of your results, then, you need to ensure that 20 per cent is as effective and as protected as possible.
  • Amy Diehl and Leanne M. Dzubinski’s powerful book, Glass Walls explores gender bias in the workplace. The authors’ research unveiled six core factors that serve as a framework for understanding gender bias. The book also offers insight on how to shatter barriers holding women back.
  • In his popular LinkedIn newsletter, well-known digital and social media and artificial intelligence expert Martin Waxman, weighs in on the 2023 Future Today Institute report. He says it’s important to develop a strategy to use AI for decision-making across the enterprise and not just in silos like marketing and communications.

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