Why Rule Breaking Makes Sense

Complexity & Rationality Why do employees decide to break the rules?  Do it their way?  Resist change?  It doesn’t make any sense!

It can be frustrating, and often perplexing, when employees fail to adhere to company policies and procedures, especially when those policies and procedures are in their best interest. There is a useful way to think about this issue: What employees do makes sense...to them; but the complexity of work environments makes it hard to understand why it makes sense to them.

We live and work in complex environments. It helps to think of our environments as systems with overlapping and interacting components - including people, things, rules, values, etc. - which are, in turn, complex sub-systems. One of the principles of complex systems is that the “people” component tends to respond only to the limited information that they are presented with locally. We make decisions based on our knowledge of what makes sense at the local level, which is called “local rationality”.

The policies and procedures contained in the corporate manual are only influential if they are brought to bear on the daily lives of people in the workplace. If those policies and procedures only exist in the manual and are not made a part of the local workplace, then they don’t exist in reality and will not have an impact on performance. They will lack influence.

Companies have policies and procedures for a reason - to create good, reliable results; so it is the responsibility of supervisors to bring those policies and procedures to life in the workplace. By intentionally incorporating formal policies and procedures into the “local” work environments of employees - through conversation, feedback, modeling, etc. - supervisors make it “rational” to follow the rules.