Why do we stick to one rule while happily breaking another?


Crime scene investigation

On April 20, 2006, Thomas van der Bijl, a crucial witness against one of the most notorious Dutch criminals Willem Holleeder, was shot dead at nine o’clock in the morning in a café in Amsterdam-West. An eyewitness saw two men running out of the pub and throwing something away in the canal. After a few diving attempts, the police found a gun. The standard protocol is to fish the weapon out of the water, put it in a container with water from that canal, and bring it to the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) for further examination.

But John Pel, who led the forensic investigation at the crime scene, was concerned that the water would splash away the DNA during the lengthy trip to the NFI, located far away from Amsterdam. Therefore, he decided to bring the weapon to the research lab in Amsterdam and examine it with his team. After arguing and being reprimanded for not following the rules, the investigation continued. Within 48 hours, they could identify the first suspect, and the case moved forward quickly. 

Strong moral compass

Another example comes from Nurse Gayle Kasparian. She watched over prematurely born twins when one of the two girls started to turn blue. Kasparian tried everything, but nothing worked. In desperation, she deviated from the standard procedure and put the girls in the same incubator. Within moments, the twins snuggled up against each other, and the girl stabilised. Not much later, they were allowed to go home. 

Pel did not adhere to the rules to preserve crucial DNA, and Kasparian to save a life. Even though they knew it might get them into trouble, they did it anyway and decided to deal with the consequences of their actions afterwards. Both have a strong moral compass and broke the rules because they felt they had no choice.  

Forcing a breakthrough

Another reason why people do not follow the rules is because they want to force something. With provocative action, they cause controversy and lively discussions. For example, on June 30, 2009, against all protocol, US soldier Bowe Bergdahl walked off his military base in Afghanistan and into the desert. Not long after, the Taliban captured him and held him captive for five years. 

He later stated that he wanted to create a so-called DUSTWUN (duty status – whereabouts unknown) to draw attention to the poor conditions on the base. An extreme action with severe consequences.

Senseless and bureaucratic

But not everyone who breaks the rules acts with a strong moral sense. People are less likely to obey the rules when they do not understand or agree. However, before following your own path, it is wise to find out why the rule is there because often there is a pretty good reason for it.

People also overstep their bounds when they feel their freedom is curtailed. And whenever people violate the rules, new rules are added to prevent something similar from happening again. The result: a complex maze of rules and regulations. And the more rules, the stronger the urge to break them.

Keep an eye on your creatives

Research by Dan Ariely (MIT) and Francesca Gino (Harvard) shows that creatives more often colour outside the lines. In an experiment where they presented ethical dilemmas to employees of an advertising company, they discovered that those with the most creative positions, such as copywriters and designers, broke the rules more often than, for example, accountants.

It is a thin line

There are various motives behind why we do not adhere to the rules. In the case of Pel and Kasparian, breaking the rules was understandable and valuable, while Bergdahl may have pushed it beyond reasonable. However, often, the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable is pretty thin. 

Don't judge, first listen

Often, bureaucracy in organisations has gone way too far. So don’t judge too quickly and listen to those who don’t stick to the procedures because they may have had a pretty good reason. In the case of John Pel, his manager initially thought he was being stubborn again. But after listening to him, he understood Pel acted with the best intentions, and his reasons made good sense. Subsequently, the manager helped him proceed with the investigation and ensured he could work quickly.

This article was originally published in Dutch on MT/Sprout, the most popular business and management platform in the Netherlands.

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