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Why Do We Obey the Rules?

Issue 67: August 4, 2022

We have been making and obeying rules since early civilization.  Historical facts: The oldest written legal text is the Code of Ur-Nammu (around 2050 BC) and the most famous is the Code of Hammurabi (around 1780 BC, pictured above) both written in cuneiform. They are from ancient Sumeria in southern Mesopotamia, now southern Iraq.  These early codes were social contracts among people and governments, not unlike our laws today.  So, this begs the question: Why do people obey the rules considering the rules-bending culture we are living in? We wrote about why people lie, and the corollary to that may be why we obey the rules … or don’t.

Our society and our organizations exist based on rules. We may mask rules as processes, procedures, policies, regulations, laws, codes, plans, standards, guidelines or the like. Call them what you will, they guide us nearly every moment of every day.

In every instance, we seek to structure the environments we work and live in with what equates to rules, and yes even social norms, which basically set rules defining what is or isn’t acceptable.

When we consider organizational change or transformation, we are essentially seeking to change, alter or replace previous rules which sought obedience. From a systems thinking perspective, rules shape the system structure which is needed for our organizations and our society to run well, remain productive, be comfortable and predictable. As you ponder how your day-to-day is structured based on rules, let’s turn our attention to obedience…following the rules.

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Obedience Revisited

There are rules, then there are Rules.  Social contract rules can be as trivial as “laws in 17th century France about who could serve a dessert composed of more than fruit and cheese, and a sixth-century Benedictine rule about whether to wear a belt in bed,” as reported by Rivka Galchen in the New Yorker. Galchen adds that rules tend to be effective when they are norms in describing the work of science historian Lorraine Daston, in her book, Rules: A Short History of What We Live By.” Daston cites the no-rules rules of Alice in Wonderland in a place where “the only rule is that the rules will keep changing. One offering makes you larger, another makes you small; it’s always teatime because there’s no time; and the rabbit, with his broken watch, is always late.” That culture would have limited success in the real world when predictability, safety, security and comfort are what human beings crave, and therefore, rules and laws conform to those desires and expectations.

Technically, “Obedience is a form of social influence where an individual acts in response to a direct order from another individual, who is usually an authority figure. It is assumed that without such an order the person would not have acted in this way,” according to educator Dr. Saul McLeod. The social contract is implicit. To drill down, obedience happens when you are told to do something, compliance involves changing your behavior at the request of another person, and conformity happens through social pressure and involves altering your behavior in order to go along with the rest of the group, according to Kendra Cherry in VeryWellMind. Cherry adds that obedience differs from conformity in three ways:

  1. “Obedience involves an order; conformity involves a request.
  2. Obedience is obeying someone with a higher status; conformity is going along with people of equal status.
  3. Obedience relies on social power; conformity relies on the need to be socially accepted.”

Add to this, “Agreeableness is related to conformity and compliance, which leads to the positive social behaviors of not upsetting others or breaking social norms,” says Bari Lieberman in Refinery 29.

So, Why Do We Obey Rules?

Rules form the context an organization exists within, how to operate, how to serve a customer, how to manage organizational finances and the list goes on. Consider for yourself, how many rules you comply with throughout the day in your families, your work environment or even surrounding your hobbies?

There is a general consensus that people obey the rules for two reasons: to avoid legal consequences and sanctions and the rules are seen as a legitimate, so states litigation attorney Ruth Johnson. But let’s ask the philosophers. Author P.J. Herring describes Max Weber’s theory of modern-day obedience coming from legal authority of law and order. In Weber’s opinion, “We give up certain rights to a constitution, which will benefit our lives within the society. The political leaders we elect, must obey the constitution and through this standard create laws. We as citizens obey these laws because the laws have legitimacy through the constitution.” Philosopher Emile Durkheim saw society being a powerful entity that has its own natural power. “We won’t disobey what we need to survive. All rational citizens of society know that without this structure, their lives won’t be protected and many pleasures they have would not be available to them.” Thomas Hobbes saw people’s obedience coming from a social contract that is made by the people of a state. “Hobbes believed in a strong central authority that would protect the people and if it didn’t accomplish this, the people could do away with the authority and replace it with another through their voices or by force.”

Back to organizations, personal obedience is expected in order to provide a paycheck in return.  Conformity in the professional environment is expected as part of the organizational social contract ensuring compliance that ultimately results in highly productive outcomes.

Let’s face it, norms help keep anarchy at bay in any environment, organization or situation. “Well-functioning groups depend not only on people’s willingness to follow the norms, but also on people’s readiness to reinforce the norms when someone violates them,” states Eftychia Stamkou social and cultural psychologist at the University of Amsterdam. Harken back to your childhood playing with your friends, when rules were always present in any activity or game. Rules predicted how any scenario was going to play out: who was the leader, what roles others played and how to achieve success. Competitive sports are the most obvious examples of rules in action defining fair play. How many of us criticize, even yell, at others who don’t follow the rules? And express frustration with the rule breakers who compromise the team unfairly. There is a complex psychological factor at work in maintaining norms. According to Stamkou, “entitlement makes people sensitive to their status and therefore willing to enforce the norms.”

According to psychological literature, individuals who rank high in agreeableness and conscientiousness correlate with a greater willingness to accept rules. Conscientiousness is defined as goal-directed behavior, organized, dutiful and self-disciplined, according to philosopher Jym Brown. Agreeableness relates to how trusting and empathic people are. “The conscientious adopt behavior required to follow rules and the agreeable are more likely to maintain social contracts being respectful of social distancing regulations,” he adds.

The Contract of Obedience

So, in the hierarchy of obeying the rules, there is status and power to the rule makers. We all know rule makers intend to control people by creating a set of guidelines for acceptable behavior, punish those who break the rules and reward those who follow them, says author Marc Smith.

However, rules can transcend those seeking power over others. Richard McAdams, the Bernard D. Meltzer Professor of Law and Aaron Director Research Scholar at Harvard believes compliance is not the only reason we obey rules. He says, “the law works expressively by allowing people to coordinate and by signaling new information and beliefs.”  He adds, “law works as a focal point to help people avoid conflict or other undesirable situations,” a one-way street sign, for example. He adds, “We coordinate with others to obey the rule. But law also works expressively by signaling information about risk or public attitudes that causes people to update their behavior.” With a no-smoking ban, for example, “people take the beliefs of others as input into their own beliefs and changing their beliefs can cause them to change their behavior.”

Obedience Gone Amuck

Yes, but. Good personality traits can turn bad given the right circumstances. Think the Holocaust, Zimbardos’s psychological prison experiments at Stanford University, the January 6th insurrection, and Stanley Milgram’s obedience to authority figures experiment at Yale. Bari Lieberman writes, “Conscientiousness is a factor in goal-oriented thinking, self-discipline, a sense of duty, and a desire for achievement. These are all positive personality traits that generally are considered desirable in a person. Personality traits that would ordinarily help a person be well adjusted and successful may hide a darker side when put into certain situations.” She adds, “People who are conscious of their actions and actively make their own moral decisions humans of all personalities can keep the horrors of the past from ever repeating.”

Rule Breakers

So, why do people break the rules? Social cynics would say, “Because we can.” People who break the rules feel smarter than the rest of us, says change leadership expert Gustavo Razzetti. “Because they are not conforming, they are also liberated—getting rid of rules allows their brains to think freely and let their creatives juices flow without limitations,” he adds.

Think about it. Do you resist rules or procedures? Do you welcome opportunities to break the status quo? Are you a change agent … or a wrecking ball? Nancy Parsons, President of CDR-U says if you answer in the affirmative, you are a rule breaker. She adds this is an inherent risk factor that can lead to problems on the job if gone unchecked. On the positive side, rule breakers can “contribute to needed changes, fresh outlooks, new business ventures, and creative bursts of innovation and discovery. The question is — how do you strike the balance?”

The rule breakers that “ignore the rules, test the limits, do what feels good, jeopardize company resources, and who do not think through the consequences of their behavior or decisions” can be a disaster in an organization. Parson adds, “In leadership roles, rule breakers can lose credibility and betray trust by violating rules and may be prone to fostering a dysfunctional work environment because of their impulsive and potentially destructive behavior. Examples: “Failure to comply or cutting corners with safety rules, spending more funds than expenditure authority may permit, and ignoring guidelines for appropriate internet searches.”

In recent history mask wearing caused drama in the global cultural conversation. We’ve stated that people want predictability, and we are natural conformers. As Americans we tend to believe we are individualistic, our own independent people and don’t follow others.  But let’s look at it psychologically. According to psychology professor Trevor Case at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, we are actually very compliant.  When it comes to the mask-wearing rule, Case notes, the motivation to regain a freedom after it has been lost or threatened is described as psychological reactance. Jack Brehm author of A Theory of Psychological Reactance wrote, “Reactance theory suggests that when we feel that our freedoms are in some way being infringed upon, we react with hostility — telling people not to do something compels them to do it.” And once reactance takes hold, it can result in rationalizations absolving the rule breaking.

From a criminologist perspective, people commit crime, or break the law, for six reasons: lust, anger, greed, revenge, excitement or ego, according to Vincent Hurley, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University.

“They think their criminal act is worth the risk to themselves and the consequences for society – and they will break the law because of their previous experience with it; if they feel that the police have treated them unfairly, they will see it as an opportunity to rebel, to pay back,” adds Hurley.

Entitlement rears its head again with its inflated view of self-worth and a sense of deserving to be treated better than other people. “This sense of deserving more than other people propels entitled individuals to violate social norms that stand in the way of obtaining desired outcomes. For example, entitled individuals are more likely to misbehave in the classroom, cheat on their romantic partners, commit research misconduct, and play politics at work. Importantly, entitled people often break rules to improve their social status, because status fuels their sense of self-worth,” states Stamkou.

Are Rules Meant to Be Broken?

“People break rules because it is rewarding in two ways. A cheater’s high comes first and they don’t feel guilty and remorseful. Rather, researchers found, rule-breakers feel smarter and more capable along with being in an unexpectedly good mood after breaking a rule. The second reward was that in breaking a rule, rule-breakers feel a sense of freedom,” reports Jena Pincott in Psychology Today. She adds rule-breaking “has less to do with people’s characters, and more the situations people find themselves in.

Often, not a lot of conscious awareness goes into when or to what extent we push ethical boundaries. We might break the rules under some conditions and in some mindsets, but not in others. Morality is so malleable that just thinking about breaking a rule can change the way we behave.”

Francesca Gino, and Dan Ariely, behavioral economist at Duke University and MIT, found that, “Breaking a rule wasn’t also as much about people’s intelligence, as much as it was about their level of creativity. Those who cheated scored higher in divergent thinking than those who didn’t. And those who cheated more were more creative than those who cheated less.” They also found that when “posing ethical dilemmas to employees in an advertising firm, the research duo found workers who had more creative jobs — for instance, the copywriters and designers — were more likely to break rules than those with less-creative jobs, like the accountants.”

Anubhuti Matta reports in Forbes that another reason to break rules comes from the need to feel or be seen as powerful. “The more people care about power and winning or feel threatened by others on their way to the top, the faster their values fall to the wayside.” Researchers found that “rule-breaking is associated with perceptions of power. Harken back to our newsletter on power positioning or explore our book The Truth about Transformation to learn more.

In an experiment, researchers had people come to the lab to interact with a rule-follower and a rule-breaker. The rule-follower was polite and acted normally; the rule-breaker arrived late, threw down his bag on a table and put up his feet. On seeing this, people thought the rule-breaker had more power and was more likely to get others to do what he wants.”

The decision to break a rule also depends on how complex the rule is. Harvard Business Review reports that “Because organizations rely on routines for following rules, complex rules would require complex routines, which would be harder to execute reliably. As expected, rule complexity increases noncompliance.”

There is a “tribal” aspect to breaking rules as well. An organization makes rules to promote uniformity and inclusivity. “But some people break rules for the sake of supporting their own tribe, even if the rule-breaking comes at the expense of society as a whole,” reports Matta. The January 6th insurrection is a vivid example of tribal mentality.

Here’s another reason rules are broken: sometimes following the established rules is boring. “That’s why people break them—to free themselves, not to send a message. In 1823 William Webb Ellis was tired of playing football (soccer for Americans); the player took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus starting a new sport: rugby—named after his school,” writes Razzetti. In retrospect, was his decision made out of boredom, or motivated by innovation and creativity? Yes, boredom or not having fun can result in breaking the rules.

Think about our work settings. We accept the necessity to operate around a shared purpose and market orientation to ensure that everyone knows the direction, goals, and yes, the rules. When individuals in the organizational construct aren’t included (intentionally or by omission) boredom may result. Worst case, they may make up their own rules to achieve a higher sense of self-worth

Rules at Work

“Following rules is one thing. Sticking to the norms to be accepted by others is a different matter. Understanding when and how to break the rules requires a method. Corporate rules tend to limit their people rather than enable them to do more and better,” says Razzetti.

Daud’ O. Shittu, Safety and Environment Adviser at Shell adds that rules are vital running an organization effectively. “If there were no rules, then there would be lots of chaos and mess which would result in less than expected output.” He adds, “Violation is a deliberate deviation from a rule or procedure. This is an intentional failure deliberately doing the wrong thing.” This rule breaking is not necessarily malicious; it could be the result of getting the job done as efficiently as possible. But if there is a pattern to rule-breaking it can be managed.  Understanding the three violations is key: routine, situational and exceptional, according to Shittu.

  • Routine violations are when rule-breaking is the norm. A team has worked this way so often they don’t see it as wrong. Shittu identifies several influencing factors: “The desire to cut corners to save time and energy, lack of supervision or enforcement of the rules and a general perception from the workers that the rules are impractical, restrictive, unnecessary, or no longer applicable. There are also cases of new workers starting a job where routine violations are the norm and are taught bad habits, believing them to be correct and not realizing that it is not the correct way of working.”
  • Situational violations occur when “circumstances in the workplace require or entice employees to break specific rules or procedures, due to time pressure, insufficient staff for the workload, the right equipment not being available, or even extreme weather conditions. Under these circumstances, the workers find it very difficult to comply with a rule or procedure or think that complying in such situation might be unsafe.”
  • Exceptional violations rarely happen, occurring when “something has gone wrong and the decision making is to try to put things right, even if this means taking risks that are known to be inappropriate. In such exceptional cases, breaking the rules seem to be inevitable to solve the current problem or crisis and the belief is that the benefit outweighs the risk of breaking the rules.”

Playbook for Rule Breaking

For individuals, before breaking a rule, evaluate if the outcome is worth it. Razzetti suggests that everyone has values—as do organizations. “Before deciding to break the rules, reflect if the decision will go against your values or not.” Breaking rules has consequences. Razzetti adds the “aftermath of your behaviors can benefit you but hurt your team or organization.” Consider as well, to ask the right questions, including “why.” If you aren’t getting the information you need from others in the organization, ask, ask and ask again.

Noncompliance with legal rules that are in force to protect shareholders, employees, and consumers from risk are more likely in organizations with poor financial performance, deviant cultures, and flawed organizational processes, as reported by  David W. Lehman, Bruce Cooil, and Rangaraj Ramanujam in the Harvard Business Review.  They suggest how to manage the rules: 

  • “Design Deliberately.Rule-breaking is persistent; once it happens, it is hard to correct. Encourage middle managers to establish reliable routines around following rules early on to prevent bigger hurdles down the line. Better yet, involve frontline employees in the process.
  • Check for Connections.Noncompliance is particularly persistent when it comes to interconnected rules. If a rule is broken, look beyond that one rule to find the root cause of the violation. Without addressing the root case, the real problem might be overlooked and other violations are likely to occur.
  • Manage Mindfully.Not all rules are created equally. Focus ongoing efforts on managing compliance with more complex rules, as they are most prone to violation. To do so, managers should treat rule compliance programs as less of a legal exercise and more of a behavioral science by experimenting with multiple types of training programs, codes of conduct, and other systems so as to learn how to most effectively mitigate rule violations.”

Creating Rules Worth Obeying

At 2040 we work with our clients to help them define the most effective rules (structures) that will benefit the entire organization.  We caution not to follow others’ rules as a shortcut to defining their own.  And we work with leadership to set expectations among the workforce to promote and support and the rules.  One key insight is that people will obey the rules if they understand why they exist, how they will benefit personally, and how it will improve the organization’s shared purpose and goals.  To learn more about how to maximize your efforts to transform and change, reach out to us.  And check out our new book, The Truth About Transformation to learn more about organizational high performance.

Get in touch with us!

2040 helps organizations navigate the sea changes of finding their new normal. We offer actionable expertise in the strategy and operations of digital growth and engagement, empowering an empathetic workplace culture, strengthening your value proposition and driving revenues.  We’ve been in your shoes and we know what impedes transformation … and what unlocks it.

Onward and upward from the 2040 Team

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