What Motivates People To Break The Rules At Work?

A look at what drives workplace rule-breaking, and when they’re worth stopping or encouraging.

What Motivates People To Break The Rules At Work?
[Photo: Flickr user Scott S]

You probably know the employee who takes a stack of Post-It notes with him out the door every Friday afternoon. Or the one that takes an ample amount of sick days, but managed the strength to go to the football game.


What about the person who’s otherwise brilliant, but bends company policies to her will–and is promoted?

We’ve all told white lies in life, and at work. But what’s motivating workplace cheating, and when does it cross the line?

Who Breaks The Rules

It doesn’t take a genius to gloss over the rules and get away with it–just an outside-the-box mind. Researchers at Harvard Business School discovered that creativity, not intelligence, predicts dishonesty. The more creative someone is, the more easily they can justify their behavior and fabricate an excuse for pilfering those supplies or fudging a sick-day story.

Francesca Gino, coauthor with Dan Ariely of Duke University, describes part of the study in Psychology Today: Inducing a “casual” mindset, with cues that encouraged flexibitlity–with words like original, novel, and imaginative–increased the odds of cheating at a game. When a workplace culture is trying its best to be playful, with that Silicon Valley “startup bro” brand of chill, its odds of moral slip go up. What depends is whether the company is cool with that.

“Rules can be broken as long as you work for a company that is comfortable with disruption as a defining theme for growth,” says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. Many of his clients were recruited by conservative companies for their potential to shake things up, he says, but once they got to work, weren’t welcome anymore. “I have found that change agents are never welcome by their colleagues, and that their ability to execute on a dynamic new strategy is blocked every step of the way.” They leave those companies feeling discouraged and misled.

Then there are the long-con rule breakers: Those who’ve spent years working their way up the corporate ladder while tearing down convention. In the rubble, some morality might fall, but they’re ultimately rewarded despite their bad behavior. If you’re bordering the kind of sociopathic rule-bending that makes other people say, “What were they thinking?” you probably don’t even realize it.


But if one of your employees shows that sort of behavior, it’s time to reign them in at the early signs. “When someone is described as ‘that guy who breaks all the rules, but he’ll eventually pay the piper,’ you can easily recognize an individual who is potentially setting themselves up for a big failure,” says Scott Sobel, former police and investigative reporter, and whose agency, Media & Communications Strategies, Inc. works in crisis communication. Little transgressions, Sobel says, might not have a victim now–but are probably still harming that person’s reputation at work and leading to a bigger problem. More “yes men” won’t help the issue.

Why Rules Are Broken

Those high-powered narcissist exceptions aside, most of the rule broken at work are minor and victimless. Little daily cheats without an immediately recognizable victim have a variety of causes.

It levels the playing field. If you’re quitting a job on bad terms, a pack of pens or set of notebooks might find their way out the door with you. “Getting even,” in virtually harmless ways, is one cause of rule-breaking. Similarly, it could be a competitive reflex: If everyone else in your department is padding their progress reports, you’ve lost an edge.

We’re curious. The need to “see what happens” makes us bend rules, says Ira Wolfe, President of Success Performance Solutions. “Moral resources may throttle back . . . but the curiosity is still alive.”

We’re impulsive. This can be a good or bad trait in your employees. “Some people make decisions only when all the facts are in and lined up,” says Wolfe. “Others rely on emotion and instinct.” Consider who you want on your team, what kinds of risks you’re willing to take, and where you’ll place them for maximum effect.

It’s bonding. Participating in a mildly naughty act at work, like stalking people on Facebook with coworkers when you’re supposed to be finishing a project, is a bonding moment. No one wants to be the one to blow the whistle, or thumb their nose up–so it’s easier to play the accomplice.


It makes us more creative. Sort of, according to Psychology Today. Feeling like you’re outside of the rules (a “cheater’s high,” the writer terms it) stimulates creativity, which, as we covered earlier, encourages more cheating.

[h/t: Psychology Today]

About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.