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Are You a Rule Maker or a Rule Breaker?

In order to work effectively with coworkers and clients, you need to understand their viewpoint. Over the last few years, I have discovered that a person's approach to rules such as processes or standards is an important element in understanding and predicting how they will operate in the workplace. One reason this is a useful measure is that there is a wide variation across the population: from the rule makers who believe strongly in the rules to the rule breakers who cannot stand following them.

I have identified three broad categories to represent this spectrum of approaches to working with rules.

  • Bureaucratic: You feel that rules are necessary to get things done. You want a rule for every situation - documented of course. You are uncomfortable when there are no rules. You are shocked when someone breaks the rules, and do not agree with their justification, whatever it is. You are the rule maker.
  • Chaotic: You feel that rules are unnecessary or worse are obstacles to getting the job done. You are uncomfortable with lots of rules. You tend to ignore the rules. You think the rules do not apply to you or your situation. You are the rule breaker.
  • Pragmatic: You feel rules are important, but should not be followed blindly when doing so would interfere with getting the job done. You are more likely to follow the spirit of a rule rather than follow it to the letter. You prefer guidelines to rules.

The pragmatic approach lies in the middle between chaotic and bureaucratic.
Three Approaches to Rules

I find that understanding how my coworkers or clients approach rules compared to myself helps me to deal more effectively with those that differ from my viewpoint. I classify myself as a pragmatic, leaning slightly towards the bureaucratic. I work easily with other pragmatics: when our viewpoints do differ concerning particular rules, such as the amount of process to employ, we can debate the merits of our viewpoints and come to a common understanding. When dealing with bureaucrats, they often ask for specific rules or standards which I tend to avoid as being overly constraining or simplistic. My tendency as a pragmatic is to instead offer guidelines, which only frustrates them. So I am learning to provide those types of individuals with more concrete instructions to keep them happy. I have dealt less often with truly chaotic individuals - most are at least somewhat pragmatic. For those that complain about following processes, I talk about the underlying purpose of the rule and the expected benefits of complying. I have not found a satisfactory answer, however, for those that simply refuse to follow process.

The corporate culture of a team or organization can also be classified according to its approach to rules. This environment will tend to attract people with the same tendencies, who will in turn reinforce that culture. So government jobs, usually a rule-heavy environment, are often filled by bureaucrats, while small companies and start-ups with few rules often attract chaotic individuals such as the stereotypical cowboy coder. In fact, I believe this classification can help explain why organizations tend to become more bureaucratic and less adaptable as they grow in size. As a small company grows, it slowly requires more organization and rules in order to function, such as more layers of management, and more formal budgeting. As the rules increase, the original chaotic individuals become less comfortable, and tend to leave for new start-ups or smaller companies. The company becomes more attractive for bureaucrats, who tend to increase the number of rules, especially if they are in senior positions. Unchecked and given sufficient time and growth, this trend can turn a formerly small, rules-light company into a bureaucratic large company.

As a pragmatic, I believe that all rules should have a purpose for existing - benefits to the organization or team that outweigh the cost of complying. If in a particular situation following a rule would not realize those benefits or would cause harm, then I believe it should not be followed. How do you view rules? Are you a rule maker or a rule breaker?

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7 Comments on “Are You a Rule Maker or a Rule Breaker?”

  1. jk says:

    I like to make rules, but fail to follow them. Freud has something to say about that. I think of it as the Programmer’s Complex.

  2. Excellent classification of rule personalities. I too tend to be a pragmatic and find the bureaucratic group the most difficult to manage. Rules are created to serve an organization. Once the rules fail to do that, it’s time to revise or replace them. Simple enough concept but very difficult to implement.

  3. John says:

    I think some of the people you are calling Bureaucratic would be unhappy with your implication, in the last paragraph, that they support rules whose cost outweighs their benefit. I’m pretty sure even the most rule-oriented person believes that all those rules are helpful or even necessary.

    The threshold is probably more one of how the costs and benefits of a given rule are perceived, and that leads me to believe that a person’s classification in this chart is only accurate in a given area. To programmers, managers might seem to be bureaucrats, but the programmers don’t directly get to see all the benefits of their rules or the costs of breaking them.

  4. John, I agree that in reality people are more complex – someone may be a chaotic in one situation and bureaucratic in another, and the categorization itself will depend on your viewpoint, like you point out.

    Based on your first paragraph, I suspect you are a pragmatic. A few of my experiences suggest that bureaucrats can so strongly believe in the necessity of rules that they will enforce them even when the costs exceed the benefits, at least according to the judgement of pragmatics like myself :). According to them, however, the violation of a rule is such a bad thing that it is automatically better to follow the rule, no matter the cost.

  5. Michael says:

    It is interesting to look at your diagram classifying rule personality types. As I read your article I cant help but wonder if a reverse scale on to whom the rules should apply most to applies. Where the chaotic cowboy should have the rules be forced on them all the time since they are the ones who likely need to follow them most. Conversely the rule makers could then be above the rules since they are likely to make the best choices, in relation to the rules anyways. Pragmatists like you and me can then apply the rules when they make sense.

  6. Richard says:

    I think that the number one reason to have rules matches the reason to have compiler warnings turned on and a policy that all code must be warning free (but to allow @SurpressWarning annotations with significant comments). Rules may be broken, but breaking a rule should require a moderate amount of “work” – commenting, explanation, etc. This discourages random lawlessness and makes sure that the rules are generally followed. If there’s a very minor reason to break the rule, with this policy it will probably be followed anyway. If there’s a good reason to break it, the added explanation (in code for compiler warnings, in a meeting or a document for business warnings) will be a very small price to pay.

  7. Bhavesh Dave says:

    Excellent wirting.
    Bureaucratic personalities tend to create rules and follow them rigorously as they are more inclined to Organizational Value System.
    So the question here should be whether its time to be more pragmatic or follow the values rather than the rules.

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