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  • Writer's pictureYoram Solomon, PhD

Trust and Breaking the Rules

Should we not trust people to follow rules?

“We don’t trust people to follow the rules?” Really? Isn’t that the exact definition of anarchy? The dictionary definition of anarchy includes “lack of obedience to an authority.” That’s what not following rules means. But here is a question to ponder: when you decide to break the rules, are you willing to accept the consequences? Because breaking the rules would typically have consequences associated with it.

Blame it on my law degree, but I believe we should generally follow rules for several reasons. Rules provide predictability because you assume that other people will follow them. Rules protect us from each other and the possible arbitrariness of the government.

But let me ask you, when you consider breaking the rules: are you OK if other people break the rules in a way that might hurt you? Are you OK if the government or the company you work for breaks the rules and hurt you in the process?

What happens when you don’t follow rules?

In the court scene from A Few Good Men, Colonel Jessep says, “we follow orders, son. We follow orders, or people die. It’s that simple.” I served in an infantry brigade, and I never challenged an order given to me. For exactly that reason. Can you imagine what would happen if every soldier would decide for themselves which orders they follow and which orders they ignore?

How about air traffic control? Can you imagine pilots deciding unilaterally which directions to follow and which to ignore? While putting the lives of their passengers in danger due to possible air (or even ground) collisions?

How do you know if you can break the rules?

The second half of Sinek’s quote is, “We trust people to know when to break them.” How do you know if you can break them or not? One of John F. Kennedy’s favorite quotes was from G. K. Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing: “Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place.” Before breaking a rule, ask yourself—do you know why this rule was created in the first place? Is the reason the rule was created invalid, or is it still valid, and you simply may not know it?

One of the most important components of trustworthiness is fairness. If you break the rule while I follow it, it puts me in a disadvantaged state. If you decide you can drive faster than the speed limit while I follow it, you will get to places faster than I would, which is unfair to me.

What if you break the rules simply because you can afford the consequences and I can’t? You consider the consequences (a fine, for example), “the cost of doing business,” while I can’t afford those? Wouldn’t that be unfair to me?

What would be a good enough reason to break the rules? Because they don’t suit you? Even if you breaking the rules might hurt other people? How about when it hurts those who can’t defend themselves? People with disabilities? Minorities? Is it OK to break rules because most people prefer that?

What if there are no rules?

I promised to broaden the scope of the discussion to include ethics and morals. To be clear, when I talk about ethics, I don’t refer to a Code of Ethics that many organizations put in place. Those have extrinsic consequences, and therefore I consider them rules.

Imagine that the range of actions you may take varies from very bad to very good. Someone on that range is the legal bar. Anything below the legal bar is illegal or even criminal. The legal bar is extrinsic, as the consequences of operating below the legal bar are not natural consequences of your actions (i.e., the consequences are imposed by other people artificially). Somewhere (hopefully higher) on that range is the ethical bar. Anything you do above the ethical bar is ethical or good.

What would you call those actions that fall between those two bars? Actions above the legal bar, but at the same time below the ethical bar? We call them loopholes or the grey area. Those are things you know you shouldn’t do, but you do them anyway because they are not illegal.

The government’s response to those actions is to raise the legal bar, but that has several unintended consequences. First, we relegate our decision-making to rules. Why should we think for ourselves if the government does it for us? But second, we rationalize breaking the rules (exactly what Sinek did in his statement). We break the rules because we believe they were put there out of the arbitrariness of rule-makers.

What should we do? First, we should behave above the ethical bar, even though we can take actions below the ethical bar that are still not illegal. Don’t rely on rule-makers to tell you what’s right and wrong. Second, we should start raising our own ethical bar. Do more good.

Breaking the rules … and TRUST

How do rule-following and rule-breaking relate to trust? When you operate above my ethical bar, you meet the requirements of the Personality Compatibility component of trust, and I found that doing that has the strongest correlation to trust (86%). To be trusted, you must operate above the ethical bar of the person you want to be trusted by. That bar might differ for different people (Third Law of Trust) and in different contexts (Second Law of Trust). And, by the way, your ethical bar and the other person’s ethical bar may not be the same, not for all things, so focus on the other person’s bar and not your own because trust is asymmetrical (Fourth Law of Trust). And I already mentioned that when you break the rules, and I don’t, it puts us (mainly me) in an unfair situation, and fairness is another important factor in assessing your trustworthiness.


If a rule is not good for you, don’t just break it. Find out why it was put there in the first place and what effect breaking it will have on other people before you decide to break it.

But if the rule is not good for anyone, do something about it! Rules were put by people. If it was in your company, quit the company! If those are government rules, speak with your legislators! Ask others to speak with legislators. Remember that legislators are put in office by you during elections. Replace them in the next election cycle, and if you can’t find anyone to replace them, run for office yourself! That’s what I did…

I want to close with one caveat; there is always the possibility that I didn’t understand what Simon Sinek meant… But it was still a good discussion.

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