What to Do When Rules Are Broken

Every organization has rules, and leaders at every level are held accountable for making certain that their people follow them. Some of these rules were in effect long before group members joined the organization; some may have been set by higher authority and hence lie outside “the area of freedom” of leaders at lower levels. Many such rules, obviously, get established without the participation of the people who are expected to abide by them.

What is a leader to do when a member of her work group breaks one of these rules? Is there a way to handle such infractions and still operate within the no-lose philosophy?

Here, in outline form, is a step-by-step procedure to use. Suppose one of your group members, Pat, has broken a rule:

1. If you are certain Pat has broken the rule, first determine if she is aware of the rule and understands it. If she does not, explain the rule and your responsibility to enforce it.

2. If Pat, for whatever reason, doesn’t feel she can abide by the rule, listen empathically, but explain that you do not have the authority to give her that freedom—it is outside your area of freedom or sphere of influence.

3. If, later, Pat again breaks the rule, you must decide where to locate her rule-breaking behavior within your Behavior Window: in your area of Acceptable Behavior (no tangible effect on you) or in your area of Unacceptable Behavior (tangible effect on you).

4. If Pat’s breaking the rule is genuinely acceptable to you, you decide to take no action and let her suffer the consequences (she “owns” the problem). Example: if employee parks her car in a space reserved for another, you may decide it doesn’t affect you and choose to do nothing.

i-message active listening5. If Pat’s behavior is unacceptable to you (you “own” the problem), send a very clear I-Message. Example—a group member fails to protect classified materials: “Pat, when classified materials are not protected, I get very anxious because my boss will hold me accountable and my job might be at stake.” You may need to shift gears and Active Listen to her reaction.

6. If Pat still does not change her behavior, you recognize a conflict of needs and initiate Method III. Now you may find out what needs are causing her to break the rule.

7. If Method III does not produce a solution acceptable to you, you can choose one of these alternatives:

(a) Tell her exactly what the consequences will be the next time (whatever they happen to be—dismissal, demotion, etc.).

(b) Administer the consequences this time.

(c) Decide the rule is one that should be changed and take steps to bring the issue up with your boss.

A number of assumptions underlie this approach: people often don’t know about rules they break; breaking a rule occurs because people are trying to meet some need; people usually will respond to appeals for them to be considerate of your needs; people must accept the consequences of their behavior if they choose to continue breaking a rule. All these assumptions, as well as the procedure I have outlined, seem consistent with my concept of leader effectiveness.

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