For some people, the rules are very important. For others, the rules may seem a little more flexible. How we become a rule follower or a scofflaw, a rule breaker, has been variously attributed to personality, nature, the environment we were raised in, and the models we’ve had along the way.
A common saying in business is, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.” Meaning, don’t ask ahead of time if you can do something; just do what you are going to do, then, if someone objects, apologize afterwards. You are more likely to be able to do what you want and the consequences are unlikely to be severe. For confirmed rule-followers, this piece of wisdom can be profoundly problematic, and they are unlikely to thrive in an environment where this ethic rules.
The first formal lesson I had in this area was in high school science, where we learned about permeable and impermeable boundaries. Permeable boundaries are those that can be crossed, one example is the speed limit on a freeway, when you drive faster, you risk a ticket, but nothing physically stops you from exceeding the boundary. Walls are an example of a non-permeable boundary. You can’t walk through solid walls, if you barrel into them, the wall, the boundary will win and you will fall down.
In the workplace, though, boundaries aren’t as neat. They are neither completely permeable nor solidly impermeable. Understanding what can and can’t be done, or what should and shouldn’t be done to climb the corporate ladder are nuanced, a grey area, and differ from firm to firm. Even in my own household there is disagreement.
My husband, Jake, is a rule follower, he has a strong sense of order and is frustrated by those who skirt the rules to get ahead. He gets upset when people ignore fasten-seatbelt notifications or try to cut in front of a long line. My approach to rules is less rigid: I am more interested in consequences and equity than a strict adherence to the letter of the law. Nevertheless, together, Jake and I are the executive team of our family. We have to make decisions together on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.
When we at Inqune work with leadership teams, we strive to partner with them to engage in the same collaborative work. The teams we work with are often transitioning from direct to indirect management, with that comes a process of formalizing the informal, codifying the previously unspoken. We coach our teams in sessions that allow them to express their individual opinions, values, and beliefs, share the knowledge we have gathered from their team’s impressions of unspoken policies and, together, create a new generation of processes.
This post is dedicated to Jacob Ballon, my personal editor-in-chief, biggest champion and transformer of dreams into reality.