Breaking Rules

Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work

We think of rule breakers as troublemakers, but they actually provide positive results.
Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work
Image credit: Zachary Scott | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School
7 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

While working as the general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Istanbul for several years, Massimiliano Zanardi, known as Max, played a critical role in the hotel's opening and devoted a lot of effort to finding ways to improve the experience of customers. His efforts paid off: The hotel received the prestigious Business Destinations Travel Awards in 2015, was named Turkey's Best Luxury Hotel and was praised by Business Destinations magazine for its unique way of innovating, its unparalleled facilities and the passion and commitment the hotel's employees have for their jobs.

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When asked where their passion comes from, the employees often say it's due to the way that Zanardi encouraged them to always ask questions. Despite the hotel's success, Zanardi regularly challenged employees to think differently about luxury by asking "why?" and "what if?" questions. Take the employees' yearly ritual of planting flowers on the terrace right outside the hotel's restaurant. Employees get together at around the same time each year to fill the pots and choose what to plant. To assure that the usual way of doing things was questioned, Zanardi asked staff members, "Why do we always plant flowers? What else could we plant?" These questions raised the employees' curiosity and triggered some creative answers. Though the pots were generally used for flowers, they ended up becoming home to herbs and heirloom tomatoes that then were used in the hotel's acclaimed restaurant, Atelier Real Food. All of this from asking a few simple questions, rather than taking the usual way of doing things for granted.

Related: If It's Not Broken, Don't Fix It -- Break It

Zanardi's actions seem contrary to the popular adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." By deviating from customs, even successful ones, his behavior offers an example of rebellion that can bring about positive change in organizations.

We generally think of rule-breaking in business as trouble. We picture people who rebel just for the sake of creating chaos or annoying others, and workplaces that risk spinning out of control. But, we have this wrong: Breaking rules, when done with the right intent, can generate rather surprising results. We, as well as our organizations, stand to benefit from more rebelliousness, not less.

Related: This Entrepreneur Who Sold Her Company for $1 Billion Wants You to Throw Out the Unwritten Rules That Hold You Back

When we break rules constructively by letting ourselves explore and wonder rather than just following existing procedures or processes, our ideas are more innovative. Curiosity and innovation go hand in hand, research finds. For instance, in a study led by Spencer Harrison of INSEAD, people selling their handmade goods online answered a survey about how much curiosity they experienced in their work. The researchers counted the number of new items each artisan listed online over a two-week period and used the number as a measure of creative productivity. The more curious the artisans felt, the greater their productivity.

As was true for Zanardi, curiosity can be encouraged in the workplace by asking questions such as "What if ... ?" "Why?" and "How might we ... ?" Many innovations we know today were born out of such simple questions. The inspiration that led to the Polaroid instant camera, for instance, was a question that the 3-year-old daughter of its inventor, Edwin H. Land, asked in the mid-1940s. Her father snapped a photo, and she found herself having to wait impatiently to see it. When her father explained to her that the film had to be processed first, she wondered aloud, "Why do we have to wait for the picture?"

Breaking rules is not only good for innovation. It also changes how much respect we gain in the eyes of others. Consider the successful 16th-century French pirate Francois Le Clerc. As a testament to his success, he nabbed the No. 13 spot on Forbes's list of highest-earning pirates. (Yes, Forbes came up with a list of top-earning pirates.) Legend has it that Le Clerc was a "lead from the front" pirate, often the first to board an enemy ship. This trait cost him a leg: That's why he became known as "Jambe de Bois" ("Peg Leg"). He went on to lead a fleet of 10 vessels and over 300 men. So many other pirates followed Le Clerc into battle, even after he lost his leg. Why? Because he fought beside them and gained their respect.

Related: What You're Afraid Will Happen If You Break the Rules Probably Won't

In a survey I conducted of over 700 employees, I found that the most respected leaders are those most willing to get their hands dirty. When I asked the employees to think about leaders they don't respect, they zeroed in on managers removed from the nitty-gritty. When talking about their success, rebels use "we" rather than "I." By breaking away from prescribed roles, rebels gain respect, and the relationships they develop with others are tighter as a result.

There's another reason why breaking rules pays off. When we rebel, we avoid boredom, as we choose novelty over what's familiar and comfortable. And no matter how repetitive or rote a job may seem to be, there is always room to inject some novelty. At the fast-food chain Pal's Sudden Service, workers move from station to station throughout the day, and they're told the specific order they'll follow on their shift when they show up for work. A simple gesture, but one that injects novelty.

How satisfied we are in our jobs, how creative we are and how well we perform depends on how much novelty we experience at work, research shows. My colleague Brad Staats (of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) and I analyzed data from transactions of employees who processed applications for home loans at a Japanese bank. Each employee engaged in 17 different tasks, such as scanning applications, inputting application data and conducting credit checks. After a worker completed a task, the system automatically assigned him or her a new one. Using two and a half years of data, we found that when workers were assigned a greater variety of tasks across a few days, their productivity (which we measured as processing time) got better. Variety provided novelty and motivated people in their work.

Related: The Inherent Rebellion of Entrepreneurship

Novelty also increases how much we grow in both confidence and ability. Psychologists Brent Mattingly (Ashland University) and Gary Lewandowski (Monmouth University) asked a group of participants to read a list of facts. Some of the participants received facts that came across as interesting, novel and exciting ("Butterflies taste with their feet"), while others received information that was duller ("Butterflies begin life as a caterpillar"). When participants read interesting facts, they believed they were more knowledgeable than when they read mundane ones. Thanks to the novel reading, they felt more like masters -- and more confident that they would be able to accomplish new tasks in the future. When presented with new tasks, they worked harder on them.

By breaking rules, our ideas become more creative, our relationships become stronger and joy and excitement become common at work and in our lives. Though rebelling may seem risky, it clearly pays off.

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