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Why do people break rules?

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

We try to manage our conduct rules breaches tightly but still find it hard to push down the number of breaches.

The foundation of SMCR is built on the concept of specific conduct rules that are intended to shape behaviour and allow for sanctions on individuals where necessary. The problem is that inventing some rules, telling employees what they are and giving them training does not guarantee that their behaviour will actually change.

The very practical and important question that firms should be asking themselves is why (taking Individual Conduct Rule 1 as an example) would an employee act without integrity? Are there specific triggers that lead to anybody becoming a rule breaker?

Answering these questions will allow you to put together practical actions to shape behaviour and reduce risk.

Rule breaking triggers

This is a non-exhaustive list that our research has shown to be some of the main triggers of deliberate rule breaking in an organisational context.

  • Cultural norms (others are doing it) – it is very hard to get an individual to change their behaviour if they feel that others continue to break rules and get benefits. This is particularly powerful if examples are set further up the hierarchy within an organisation.

  • People pressure – this may be your boss leaning on you to work in a certain way.

  • Process pressure – these are ways of working that heavily influence risk taking behaviour such as individual rewards for hitting financial targets.

  • IT pressure – related to both the above and increasingly important because of the powerful influence screen-based information has over all of us.

  • Ineffective sanctions - they either don’t exist or they are not seen as effective (I can get away with it)

  • Personal rewards outweigh the risk – sanctions may exist but the potential rewards for breaking a rule far outweigh the perceived risk of the sanction.

  • I’ve done it before – if you’ve broken a rule once and got away with it, it is far easier to do it again.

  • I don’t know what the rule is – whilst ignorance of a rule may not be an effective defence, it is a possible reason that a rule is broken in the first place.

Some of these triggers can be looked at in quite tangible and specific terms (sanctions for breaches, training in conduct rules) others are harder to nail down (cultural norms, for example).

Our Bitesize "Encouraging rule followers" looks at some of the practical steps you can take to deal with these issues and to create an environment where rule breaking is culturally unacceptable.

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