How to Break the Rules at Work -- And Still Succeed

Last Updated Jul 14, 2011 5:33 PM EDT

I'm not that proud of it (well, maybe a little), but I once single-handedly destroyed a dress code.

Dress codes are typically arbitrary and in most cases impossible to logically justify, especially when the code involves people who never meet customers.

And while I know some think our clothing affects our behavior and attitude, even if we work from home and no one sees us, I don't. Comfort affects my performance a lot more than khakis and an oxford shirt.

When I took a job as a manufacturing manager all the managers wore khakis and dress shirts; some even wore ties. I did too, except on casual Fridays. (Admit it: If clothing really matters why doesn't it matter on a Friday?)

After about a month I told the other managers I would be working on the shop floor that Tuesday. I wore jeans. I waited a week, did the same thing. Soon jeans once a week turned into jeans twice a week turned into all jeans, all the time.

Most of the other managers slowly followed suit (no pun intended) and voila! No more dress code.

How was I able to actually increase my scope of responsibility as my dress code conformity decreased?

Easy: When you want to create your own rules, first perform at a consistently high level.
Pretend you were just hired to work in a 9-to-5 environment and want to shift your work hours to noon to 8 p.m.

Follow this process:

  1. First, follow all the rules. You're new. You don't deserve to be different. Follow every rule, written or unwritten. Show you can and will fit in.
  2. Prove yourself. Work extremely hard. Build relationships. Achieve great things. Be indispensable. The more your employer (or, for that matter, your customer, if you own your own business) needs you, the more you can eventually stray from certain rules.
  3. Stay late. But don't get to work late; come in at 9 a.m. Find a good reason to stay late, a reason that can be repeated. Maybe you need to call customers in other time zones. Maybe generating a report after the close of business makes sense. Maybe you need production to be idle before you experiment with a new process. Don't stay late because you are or want to appear overworked; stay late because you plan to do something that can't be done during normal work hours. Above all, make sure what you stay to do benefits the company, not yourself.
  4. Then do it again. And again. Show you are willing to sacrifice and go the extra mile when it benefits the company and others.
  5. Ask to change work hours, but just for one day. Explain why. Show how staying late paid off for the company the last few times. It should be easy, especially if you can describe tangible results.
  6. Go back to coming in on time and staying late a couple more times. Again, show you're willing to sacrifice to get results.
  7. Ask to change work hours for one more day. This time it will be really easy. Everyone, including your boss, will have grown accustomed to you working late, and have had time to realize that coming in late isn't a problem.
  8. Now for the clincher: Tell your boss you'll be coming in late because you will stay late. That's right: Don't ask, tell. But in a nice way. Say, "Hey, I'm going to come in at noon tomorrow because I'll be staying until at least 8 p.m. to run those reports...." Say it like it's no big deal, nothing out of the ordinary, just smart business as usual. If your boss nods distractedly, you know you're in. Then slowly extend the habit so it truly does become business as usual.
Does this work? Absolutely, but only under one basic premise: Making your own rules is a privilege and not a right, a privilege only earned through hard work and sacrifice. Making your own rules is always based primarily on creating benefits for the company. The benefits you enjoy are a by-product, not the main driver.

In my case, I wanted to wear casual clothes, but more importantly I wanted to spend time on the shop floor, where my presence really mattered: Working with employees, advising, mentoring, pitching in, identifying problems and developing solutions -- in short, getting my hands and clothes dirty. Wearing casual clothing made perfect sense for the company... and then also for me.

The same is true if you want to shift work hours. Find reasons the company benefits and prove those benefits -- then you can enjoy personal benefits, too.

But above all, if you want to create new rules you must be a superstar. The rules are always a little different for outstanding people.

First make yourself indispensable, and then you can flex a little rule-breaking muscle. Believe me, the people who matter won't mind at all.

Read More:

Photo courtesy flickr user Cillian Storm, CC 2.0
  • Jeff Haden On Twitter»

    >> View all articles

    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.