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Should You Break the Rule?

Rules are sometimes wisely viewed as rules of thumb.

Key points

  • It is wise to follow the rules—most of the time.
  • In some instances, clients broke the rules wisely and successfully.
  • Rules are often viewed as a rule of thumb, but there may be a time to break the rules.
Luis Prado, Noun Project, CC
Source: Luis Prado, Noun Project, CC

It’s wise to follow the rules ... usually.

But as readers of this blog know, I’m more a fan of the gray than of black and white. So here are some admittedly anomalous composite examples of my clients breaking the rule wisely and successfully. I change irrelevant details to protect my clients’ anonymity.

The rule: No crash diets

Someone who broke the rule

A client wanted to lose 20 pounds but felt he wouldn't be motivated to follow the standard advice: lose slowly, a pound a week. Rather, he wanted to crash-diet to lose the first 10; then his goal would feel more in sight.

He emailed me his daily calorie consumption and weight. He lost 10 pounds in two and a half weeks and then the other 10 in 10 more weeks. It’s been six months now, and he’s kept it off by adopting a diet in which he eats just 10 percent fewer calories than before he started dieting: for example, leaving two bites on the plate, choosing a lower-calorie entrée, eating one piece of bread instead of two, sharing a dessert, and yes, keeping his nemesis, ice cream, out of the house.

The rule: Manage positively, not by fear

Someone who broke the rule

(I change irrelevant details to protect my client's anonymity.)

A workgroup within BART, the Bay Area’s public mass transit system, was known for being unresponsive. The manager, who had been there for years, knew what strings to pull, and despite the workgroup's sloth, managed to hold onto her job—until she didn’t.

Finally, an employee, having waited three months for the division to provide essential other workgroups with essential information, marched into a senior director’s office with other victims of that workgroup’s sloth. A year and a lawsuit later, she was replaced, not fired, just “put where she can finish out her years without causing too much harm.” The new manager, in her “welcoming” talk to the workgroup's staff, put the fear of God in them: “I will take no more lazy sh*t from anyone. As soon as I see it, I’ll get your ass fired, just like your boss was.” Immediately, same day, no, same hour, everything changed.

The rule: The best way to get a job is to network

Someone who broke the rule

She hated networking. She was shy and, besides, felt it was cheapening: “It’s an acknowledgment of society’s too often bestowing jobs based on who you know more than on what you know.” But she tried networking, rehearsed when it failed, and tried again. And for all that swallowing and anxiety, she ended up with nothing more than lots of wasted time and “I feel my reputation was tarnished from having descended to that game.”

She was relieved when I said she’d be wise to confine her job search to signing up for alerts from the macro job sites like Indeed and LinkedIn and to regularly checking the job postings at her profession's websites. Then, to avoid wasted effort, she should apply only for openings where she'd likely be in the top tier of applicants. Each application should make the case for why she’s a fine fit, and she should prepare moderately for interviews but not so much that she'd be tight. Within a month, she got three interviews, and two months later (organizations’ hiring processes have elongated), she got a well-suited job offer.

The rule: Don't get angry

Someone who broke the rule

A wealthy client was trying to figure out the best charitable bang for the buck for a $250,000 donation. To help figure it out, he had a number of phone discussions with a colleague. He noticed, that with each phone call, the colleague was less enthusiastic, even in how he answered the phone. In the beginning, it was an enthusiastic "Hi!" but it had descended into a flat, “Oh, hi.”

My client asked his colleague why, and the response was, “Well, honestly, I’m getting tired of your changing your mind.” My client deliberately displayed anger: “Yes, in a phone call, we may agree on what to donate to, but when I got new information that makes me unhappy with that, of course, I changed my mind. As Longfellow wrote, 'A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.' If that frustrates you, that’s a problem for me. Get over it or I won’t discuss it with you anymore." The colleague apologized, the discussions continued productively, and they ended up excited about where the money would be donated.

The takeaway

Again, it's usually wise to follow established best practice. But rules are often more wisely viewed as rules of thumb. There is a time to break the rule, just like if you’re having a baby now, you might, on the way to the hospital or midwife birthing center, want to run a red light.

I read this aloud on YouTube.