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Want to Be Successful? Don't Play by the Rules

Should You Play By the Rules"Good guys finish last."
"Rules are made to be broken."
"The ends justify the means."
From the time we're young, just beginning to understand what's going on around us, until we're too old to care anymore, one question comes up again and again. Should we play by the rules?

Now, I'm sure most of you are pretty opinionated. But before you answer yes, no, or it depends, consider this. You probably play by more rules than you think -- or should. Some of them are even rules you impose on yourself, and for reasons you may not be aware of. Those are the ones that tend to be the most career and success-limiting.

You see, rules fall into three general categories: legal, societal, and self-imposed.

Legal rules are pretty black and white. America's a nation of laws, and the rule is don't break them. Just to be clear, we're talking criminal and civil laws. That trips up a lot of people who mistakenly think fraud, discrimination, domestic violence, harassment, even downloading copyrighted material or rolling through a stop sign, are ethical or moral issues. They're not.

Societal rules involve complex issues like ethics and morality, so they're far more subjective than legal rules. Even if you feel strongly about one thing or another, there are likely circumstances that would change your opinion.

For example, I generally don't fault people who cheat on their spouses, but I might feel very differently when the person being cheated on is someone close to me. Similarly, while I think people should treat others with respect, I know I fall short of that ideal all too often.

So, you can see how societal rules are subject to perspective and circumstance. These are rules that from time to time we may break, feel badly about, realize that we're human, and ultimately forgive ourselves -- even while those we harmed may not.

Now, let's talk about self-imposed rules. They're the kind of rules you hear again and again in every workplace. I hear them in many of your comments and emails, as well:

  • "I won't compromise my principles to climb the corporate ladder."
  • "I don't play politics at work."
  • "That's outside my comfort zone."
  • "Life is too short to work with a**holes."
  • "I won't work for a boss who, at a job where, or at a company that ___________ (fill in the blank)."
Now, we've all uttered a phrase or two like that at one time or another, right? Well, let me introduce you to a concept called self-limiting behavior. In this context, it's when we put restrictions on ourselves that have unintended consequences because we're not aware of the real reasons behind them.

For example:

  • Nobody has to compromise principles to climb the corporate ladder. You may, however, have to sacrifice a great deal, including some of your own personal needs and wants, in favor of those of the company's customers, shareholders, and employees. So, maybe you're not principled so much as selfish, afraid to give up that much control, or afraid you might fail.
  • As for playing politics, show me a workplace where everyone sings Kumbaya and gets along like peas in a pod and I'll show you, well, Utopian BS. It doesn't exist. And those who say they don't play politics are usually the most political of all.
  • Whenever you hear, "that's outside my comfort zone," it's actually code for "that's something I'm scared of." While it's human to be afraid, it's not a good thing to be unaware of it.
  • As for not wanting to work with a**holes, I've got news for you, those who are fond of saying that are usually the biggest a**holes of all. Some casually toss that term around as if it's some kind of absolute. The truth is that we're all a**holes some of the time. Half the time you're the a**hole and the other person is just reacting to it. And one person's a**hole is another person's spouse or best friend.
You see, none of these self-imposed rules are about ethics, morals, or conviction. They are, however, about trying to control a world, or at least a workplace, that's chaotic and scary. And by setting these arbitrary limits, we delude ourselves into believing that we've gained some measure of control. In reality, the only thing we're achieving is limiting our success and potential. That's why it's called self-limiting behavior.

So, back to the original question, should you play by the rules? Legal rules, absolutely. Societal rules, it depends. Self-imposed rules, never. Not if you want to have a successful management career.

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Image courtesy CC 2.0 flickr user bloomsberries
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