Rules should only make like better

Leaving Toronto’s Pearson Airport on Friday afternoon, I entered what looked to be a rather quick customs line – about eight snakes around those “form-a-line” ropes before heading to a customs agent. It was moving at a fair pace.

When I got to the front, an usher pointed a group of us in a direction away from the customs officials. Some of us were bewildered. Staring to my right, away from where I wanted to go, there was another line, just as long – this was the actual final line before you got to small-talk with a customs agent. Fair enough.

About half way through that second line, we heard shouting. From the front of this final line, an older woman carting a mountain of bags on a large luggage dolly pleaded with officers. From what I could gather, she had mistakenly cut in front of the entire second group, unaware as many were, that the first line was only part 1 of 2.

The officers demanded she go back to the beginning of the first line. She pleaded again. She was already late and had to catch her flight. Maybe it was a funeral, a wedding, or just a visit. Either way, she emanated desperation. They pointed to the back of line 1, stoically and with, at best, undetectable empathy. It was somewhat painful to watch.

As is course, many of us gawked. A few shook their heads in that “she should’ve known better” way. But, most of us were sympathetic. A guy muttered to the man behind him that he’d gladly trade his spot in line for her – he wasn’t in that big of a rush. In fact, many of us weren’t. The vast majority of us would’ve been fine, unfazed, and by-and-large unaware had they simply let her go through customs. A flight not missed. A mere twenty second extra wait for the rest of us in the final line. Instead, a stranded passenger, a missed funeral or wedding or graduation or final goodbye or first hello or who knows.

So, why do rules exist?

Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Rules exist to keep a society orderly. They also let us know how to get what we want without guessing. They place responsibility on the individual for the benefit of the whole.

Rules exist in order to, believe it or not, make life better. It sounds strange to you because, so often, we’ve experienced the contrary.

In this case, as in many cases, the rule backfired. Yes, she should’ve known better. Yes, it wouldn’t be fair to the rest of us to wait that extra few seconds. Yes, it’s only fair she experience the extra fifteen minutes of waiting that the rest of us had been so willing to accept.

But, there’s a tiny bit more to the story. Only a few minutes prior to the incident, a woman behind me in the final line asked the people around us if it would be OK for her to skip to the front. She asked politely. Her plane was boarding right now. We obliged (or at least didn’t have a strong enough aversion to the idea of losing one place in line). She gingerly made her way up the line, scooting under rope after rope, thanking and apologizing simultaneously. She didn’t do anything differently than the elderly woman would a few minutes later. They just didn’t catch her.

So, in one case, a woman was “caught” mistakenly budging the line. But, she desperately needed to be there. In the other case, the woman knew she was breaking a rule because, she also desperately needed to get through, and wasn’t caught. In both cases, the rest of us were, and would have been, generally OK with the breaking of the rule because the small negative impact each of us would’ve experienced was less important than the huge negative impact it would’ve caused the two ladies. Overall, we would be happier that they broke the rules, knowing that we’ve all been in that position before.

Rules are, too often, followed blindly.

But, to the officials, rules are rules. They are to be followed verbatim, without exception, because…well, I’m not sure.

Now look, I’m not talking about letting just one person through security with a match in his shoe, or a bottle of mysterious clear liquid in his pocket because he desperately had to catch his flight. We’d all agree that breaking of a rule is different. It could put each of us in real jeopardy. Even a .01% chance of an incident is far too much give to break this rule.

But, here were two cases where breaking a rule would’ve been better than not. That old lady we all felt sorry for would have made it on time. Maybe she would’ve passed that little anecdote onto her family that evening.  Instead, she has certainly passed on the anecdote that “all customs officials are assholes” by now. It’s a double-loss. A missed opportunity for a good story, replaced by, yet another story of why airports can be miserable places.

The opportunity was lost because the airport officials placed a rule in front of an otherwise obvious decision.

The officials are not to blame, the culture is.

But, I don’t blame the officials either. Their jobs are robotic.  I’m sure they don’t enjoy their jobs much either.  There’s just not much room for interpretation in most jobs.  Instead, I’ll blame the culture of that job – and the culture of, frankly, the vast majority of jobs on this planet.  They are rule-based.  There’s very little autonomy in most jobs.  Follow the rule, not your own good judgement.

Those jobs suck.

A small bit of autonomy might make most sucky jobs suck less.

And that’s why a company like Zappos seems so innovative.  Their customer service employees aren’t trained to strictly follow a script or a set of rules, but they are still trained – rigorously. They are given some autonomy to make their own judgements.  They are trained to solve a problem rather than repeat a rule. And what happens? People are happy, their employees are happy, and Zappos continues to flourish.

We don’t need to all run like Zappos.  But, I wish more organizations would let their employees, regardless of rank, think on their own – even if it’s just a little bit.  Give them the rules, explain why the rules exist, and let them break the rules when the rules aren’t helping. Break the rules when the alternative outcome is better.  You’d be amazed at how much happier customers and employees would be.