Rule Followers vs. Rule Breakers: When Both May Be a Concern

Nov 13, 2018

Rule Followers vs Rule Breakers

Many of us fall into a trap of trying to place people into either “rule followers” or “rule breakers,” but this concept is not as black-and-white as you may think. The motivations of each employee who fits into these perceived categories could greatly affect their ability to produce for your company if left unchecked.

That’s why it is critical to unlock your employees’ motivations and then use that information when you provide them with training or coaching. A one-size-fits-all approach is never a good idea.

Rule Followers: Strengths and Weaknesses

You can probably easily think of the strengths of the employees you consider to be “rule followers.” However, you may be more challenged to think of their weaknesses.

- Strengths: A rule follower will adhere to your organizational policies and procedures; they will also hold others accountable for following the rules. They are also less of a risk for employment practices liability.

- Weaknesses: A rule follower may be overly-focused on rules, order, policies, and plans. They may also be inflexible in their beliefs about adhering to the rules and become dogmatic in their interactions with other employees.

A rule follower is motivated by their desire to see things remain in order and for the order to be maintained at all times. They also expect themselves and others to remain focused on supporting the mission of the company and the specific needs in a given moment.

Because of their tendencies to extreme black and white thinking, the employee may have blind spots when it comes to looking at the bigger picture. This could lead to frustrating, tense, or passive-aggressive conversations with managers and fellow employees.

When this employee loses sight of the big picture in favor of holding everyone accountable -- including themselves -- it could hurt productivity in three ways:

  • Fellow employees will avoid situations where they need to work with this employee, impacting the quality of collaborative working.
  • The employee’s manager will not be able to focus on supporting the company’s mission because they are spending more time than is necessary to address the employee’s concerns.
  • The employee will be consumed by whether they and others are following the rules, taking time away from focusing on their tasks.

Rule Breakers: Strengths and Weaknesses

At this point, you may be curious to discover the strengths of a “rule breaker.” Depending on your industry, the strengths could be very beneficial.

- Strengths: A rule breaker could challenge the status quo in your company to improve productivity. They will also not be afraid to speak up and present ideas for how the company can grow.

- Weaknesses: A rule breaker could lack an internal rudder about right and wrong. This individual could also be unaware of their ability to differentiate between right and wrong.

A rule breaker is motivated by expressing their individuality. They do not want to be “held down” by rules and absolutes that they feel are imposed on them, and they will likely become unproductive because they are being drained of energy from the rules they feel are weighing them down.

In extreme cases, this type of employee will be very resistant to rules, policies, or plans. In most cases, this type of individual simply needs an avenue to express their individuality -- whether through brainstorming sessions, the ability to suggest ideas for improvement, or flexibility on non-critical rules in the workplace.

The Best Approach to Support Rule Followers and Rule Breakers

Once you identify the employees who fit each of the categories, you should consider taking two specific actions.

1. Have a critical conversation to address areas for improvement. You or your managers should sit down with each employee to better understand their motivations. Find out what is causing the undesired action that is impacting productivity.

Then, determine how to put each employee in a position where their “rule following” or “rule breaking” tendencies will be strengths for the company.

  • For rule followers, consider ways for them to contribute to reviewing or updating your plans, policies, and procedures.
  • For rule breakers, consider ways for them to contribute ideas for helping the company grow or providing them with tasks that allow them to express their individuality and creativity.

2. Provide coaching or training that targets specific blindspots. You should identify specific training or coaching that targets each of your employee’s blind spots instead of finding a generic method for all employees.

  • For rule followers, provide coaching on how they can better interact with their fellow employees and take direction from managers.
  • For rule breakers, provide coaching on how to retain their individuality while still following your company’s rules and procedures.

Along with providing coaching and training, you should communicate with each manager to help them better understand how to direct and motivate each employee. Taking a top-down approach will ensure the message is received, which will help reverse a negative productivity trend.

How ZERORISK HR Can Support Your Company

For companies that are seeing a downturn in productivity linked to employee activity, we recommend utilizing the ZERORISK Clear Direction program that includes a Team Directory.

The Team Directory will include an analysis of each team’s thinking diversities (rule followers vs. rule breakers) as well as how managers can most effectively communicate with and direct employees.

By understanding the motivations of each employee, your managers will best understand how to work with their employees to support your desired improvement in productivity to fuel company growth.

To find out more about how to get started with the Clear Direction team development program, please contact us today. We look forward to hearing from you.

ZERORISK helps organizations build great cultures by identifying, developing, and retaining top talent. The ZERORISK Hiring System blends a revolutionary behavioral science with state-of-the-art technology to reduce unwanted turnover and improve employee performance. For more information contact us at (800) 827-5991.

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