When the right thing is the wrong thing


We focus training time on teaching newbies how to do things right and the “rules” they should follow. But what happens when they find themselves in the situation where the right thing is the wrong thing to do?

There are countless examples and stories of when doing the right thing is the wrong thing. There is a great example in Simon Sinek’s book  Leaders Eat Last, that talks about a FAA air traffic controller who chose to break the rules in order to guide an airliner in distress down to the ground as quickly and safely as possible. Sinek talks about giving permission to break rules – giving people as much as they need to in order to do the right thing … and setting the environment up for that to occur is the task of leaders (and trainers).

What we are really talking about here is the skill of recognising when the rules should not not apply, and creating an environment where it’s OK to break them.


“The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.”
(Oliver Wendell Holmes)

As higher level skill holders we know from our experiences that rules work well and we have an understanding of why the rules are there.We need to start by helping novices learn not just what the rules are, but the reasons why the rules are there and why they work.

Our experience has taught us that there are exceptions to everything.  As part of training we need to give learners opportunities so they can also recognise when the rules will work and when its OK to break them.  We must do everything we can to discourage mindless rule following.

Here are basic strategies that help with this:

  • Always take the time to explain why rules exist, and always question learners as to why they are doing something a certain way to check their understanding
  • Use case studies and suitable anecdotes – expose learners to situations where things didn’t go to plan and rules were successfully (or unsuccessfully) broken.
  • Invest time in training contingency skills (a dimension of competency that forms part of all units of competency).
    • Use variations on the basic scenario –  don’t train it just one way. Even changing one element such as a different location or removal of one piece of equipment can totally change how learners must approach the situation.
    • Use the “what if…?” strategy – It can be done anytime and anywhere. Take the situation and ask them to think about what they would do if… x, y, z happened.
    • Activate Plan B – best practice is that we should always have a Plan B in our brain, or even better a plan discussed with those we are working with. Often Plan B is the more creative and possibly rule breaking plan, so why not give it a go during training before you ever need to do it in battle.
  • Encourage creative thinking – Rules are made to be tested. Set challenges, for example, how many different ways could you complete task x, y, z. Set the standard: “Is it safe and does it work?” (Bill Webster). After the first few suggestions you will likely start getting to the more creative ones. Discussion around the best ones, safety considerations and how these follow or break the rules should be encouraged.


Sometimes the definition we hold of “rules” as inflexible things stunts our creative thinking and problem solving. There are very few black and white situations – everything is a shade of grey. Experienced people are better at seeing the shades. Practicing improvising helps with this, but go a step further.

Let’s have a re-branding. Instead of talking about rules, help spread the idea that the ideas we focus on in training are actually “guidelines” based on best practice and most common experiences of others.


There is a clear difference between newbies who break rules due to ignorance, and the rule breaking down by those who are proficient in the skill. The experienced person  breaks rules based on their understanding of what the rules do and why they exist. They are also guided by the “rules for breaking rules”.

  1. Break the rules as a last resort – Follow the rules most of the time. Rules may be thought of as guidelines or options, but they are usually the tried and tested best options.
  2. For each rule you break, have a good reason – Break a rule after careful consideration, so you know breaking the rule is the most effective and meaningful way to get something done. Have an explanation for every single step outside the accepted standard operating procedure.
  3. Be prepared to accept the consequences – Your decision can be questioned. Have confidence that you made the best decision you could at the time, and that if it turned out you were wrong, you made a choice in good faith, for the right reasons after consideration of the possible outcomes.


Sometimes the right thing is the wrong thing due to the people involved in the situation. We know the human factor in any situation is often the most unpredictable – it looks like the rule could/should apply, but due to the people involved it’s just not the best way to go about things. Often these situations that involve managing people and their emotions are much harder than knowing when a technical skill will not apply. Again, it is with experience that we get better at navigating this minefield, but I can share these tips:

  • When you can, treat people the way they want to be treated rather than how best practice or rules say things should be done.
  • Sometimes explaining the rule to the people involved helps them understand why you are doing something a certain way, earning their cooperation and making it easier for you to then follow the rules.
  • You can’t change people much, so be prepared to adjust other factors in order follow the rule – know it will affect things like time and effort required.

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