Making and breaking the rules

Applying the Golden Rule

Fred Mael

We were taxiing on the runway at Baltimore-Washington Airport in August 13th, three days after the thwarted terrorist bombing plot in London that temporarily changed airport screening policies and put a nation of flyers on alert. In the Exit row sat a distinguished looking man in his sixties. A flight attendant came over and asked him to fit his carry-on bag completely under the seat, which he refused to do. Then the supervising attendant came over and said that if it wouldn’t fit, she would have to store it above him.

As she reached for the bag, he screamed “DON’T YOU TOUCH MY BAG!” She told him that she could and would have the pilot turn the plan around, to which he responded “You wouldn’t dare!” Mr. Distinguished then engrossed himself in his New York Times, unconcerned or unaware that the plane was in fact turning around.

At the terminal he was escorted off the plane, still oblivious to the possibility that he may have cost others their connecting flights from Kansas City to virtually anywhere. Later, the somewhat dejected-looking attendant told me that although she had dealt with many rude passengers before, she had never before been compelled to remove someone. It was his “don’t touch my bag” which was an FAA red flag. His especially poor timing during a high alert left her no choice but to break her streak and kick him off.

Breaking all the rules

This could be an article about how a series of setbacks, including terrorist threats, fuel prices, and service lapses, have turned air travel into a more crowded and nasty experience. How personnel cuts have left airlines with poorer baggage handling and higher lost luggage rates. How that has led more passengers to insist on bringing all their belongings on-board. How that has led to longer seating and deplaning times and more passenger attempts to stuff huge bags above their seats, How that has led to more hostile behavior toward and scuffles with attendants. It certainly is or should be an industry-wide concern, but it’s not the focus of this article. The behavior of Mr. Distinguished is.

Everyone I’ve shared the story with has been shocked at his behavior. Still, I imagine that he has himself repeated the story, that he’s a hero in his version, and that he has found listeners who agree that he was a brave rebel, not caving in to silly bureaucratic rules or the robots who enforce them. He would argue that TSA, FAA, and the airlines have overreacted and that the rules are not meant for or don’t apply to him. And, that this country was founded by creative and bold entrepreneurs like him who ignore all form of limits. That he struck a blow for capitalism, liberty and the freedom of the human spirit.

As a business owner or entrepreneur, would you agree with him? Conversely, as a business manager and the maker of rules, do you agree with him?

Creativity and the Golden Rule

As a society, we certainly put high value on creativity and on those who see opportunities and solutions where others do not. We are grateful for people in every walk of life, whether in business, research, or non-profit good deeds, who are undeterred by those saying, “you can’t do that” or “it will never work.” And yes, sometimes doing what is right requires breaking of someone’s bureaucratic rules, whether it means cutting through red tape, finding someone empowered to make exceptions, or just using our own judgment. It’s also true that breaking rules for a higher good will sometimes hurt someone else’s feelings, either by devaluing the rule enforcer or having to remove the manager or coworker who is obstructing change and consideration of alternatives. Those are often necessary moves, justifiable if done with a minimum of humiliating others.

When there is no larger benefit to society from the rule being broken and more importantly, there is real or potential harm to others, the burden of justification switches to the rule-breaker – it’s just a simple application of the Golden Rule. Yet segments of society, even so-called “law-abiding citizens,” seem to miss this point.

Consider purveyors of spam. As a result of their being entrepreneurial by their standards, millions are saddled with lost productivity, through time wasted wading through garbage. Important emails get picked up by filters or are ignored, worthwhile e-newsletters get added to spam lists, and all for the rare chance that someone may wish to buy love potions from dubious sources. When Vardan Kushnir, the director of the American Language Center in Moscow, was brutally murdered in July 2005, his death was celebrated throughout Russia. No wonder: Kushnir had for years bombarded Russians and others with spam about his learning center, none of which brought him much business. In self-protection, much of the world responded by blocking all emails from the .ru domain, thereby depriving many of his countrymen the ability to communicate and conduct business electronically. Was Kushnir a hero and role model? And people who throw litter out their car windows, drive while clutching their cell phones, and park in parking spaces for the disabled – are they “outside the box” visionaries?

Making and Modeling Legitimate Rules

As a manager, you want to think very carefully about the rules you put in place. Think about unintended consequences of abiding by the rules, such as hampering innovation, slowing down responsiveness, or building frustration. Think about how rigid and draconian rules (“absolutely no personal phone calls on work time”) will turn all your employees into violators who will then lose their respect for even worthwhile rules.

But you are not only a rule maker – you model respect for rules within your organization. If you treat others’ legitimate rules and regulations as obstructions to be laughed at, no matter who is harmed outside your company, you will be sending a clear message about how you value the Golden Rule. You can expect your employees and clients to behave in kind, even at your expense. You can act like Mr. Distinguished, but don’t expect to be respected or admired for it.

Fred Mael, PhD ( ) is an organizational consultant who helps organizations with talent retention, managing organizational culture, and performance management. He also provides executive and work coaching to individuals. This article appeared originally in the March 2007 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.