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leadership lab

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

If your job title is manager, supervisor or team leader, chances are that you work in an organization that has a policy manual or two. Usually, the bigger the company, the greater the number of rule books, all allegedly designed to make the life of a leader easier. After all, it's less complicated to defer to "policy" than to have to explain why you are denying an employee's request for flexible working hours, or unexpected time off, or anything else. But the best leaders – the ones who have highly-motivated and high-performing teams – diligently disregard their company's policy manuals.

What blasphemy? Snub the policy manuals – decrees and edicts that were painstakingly put together by teams of expert professionals? Yes. Corporate rule books were put together to offer guidance to leaders, not to handcuff and prevent them from using and applying good judgment. Certainly there are a few notable exceptions. Any directive that has implications of life, death or serious injury should be heeded without question. Most often, these are related to safety or security. Wearing protective equipment on a job site, not smoking while fuelling a vehicle, protecting password and other confidential data – not following these rules can have significant consequences and should not be ignored. But everything else is open to a leader's judgment. Unless the rule is one of safety or security, leaders should treat policies as guidelines, broad areas in which they can exercise good judgment and flexibility in application.

I suspect that a segment of those reading this right now are up in arms.

  • “Policies are there for a reason.”
  • “When you flout the rules, you send the wrong message to your staff.”
  • “Following established procedures ensures that employees are treated consistently and fairly.”

While these viewpoints are not untrue, here are three perspectives that offer a different outlook.

Have confidence in your decision-making skills

You were given your leadership role because you likely have a track record of sensible judgment and good decision-making. Use your strengths and live up to your job title. Make choices that are in the best interests of your employees and your organization, even if you're violating some proclamation in the policy manual. Could breaking the rules come back and bite you later? Sure. But it's no different than the numerous other times you've made what you thought were good decisions only to discover later that they were sub-optimal.

Put your people first

When you break rules to benefit your people, it sends a message – that you are a compassionate human leader that has your employees' best interests at heart. Not a bad reputation to have if you're seeking to create highly-motivated and high-performing teams. If company policy only permits time off after an employee has worked for a minimum of three months but you bend the rules to let him "borrow" two vacation days earlier, then no doubt you're breaking the rules. But in the balance, it will probably be worth it.

There's no such thing as equal treatment

When it comes to people leadership, equal is simply not possible. As a leader, no matter how hard you try to treat people fairly, there will always be someone who will cry foul. So why not seek to treat people equivalently rather than equally? Equally means "exactly the same" and it's usually the objective of just about every company policy. But equivalently means treating people as individuals and trying to find a solution that is optimal for both the employee as well as the employer. And rest assured, there will be instances when the best win-win scenario will not match what the rule book dictates. Do it anyway.

Bottom line: company policies should only be guidelines. Use those guidelines and your leadership skills to make good decisions that put your people first. The benefits will far outweigh the disadvantages.

Merge Gupta-Sunderji (@mergespeaks) is a speaker and author. Reach her or join the conversations on her blog at

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