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Rule benders make more appealing leaders than rule abiders

Leaders who find a way around the rules, rather than technically disobeying them, are perceived as more dominant and prestigious, according to new research.

31 January 2024

By Emma Young

Leaders who break the rules sometimes find themselves on the receiving end of widespread public condemnation, as the UK's Covid-19 'Partygate' scandal clearly illustrated. However, despite the dangers it poses to their eventual grasp on power (never mind their people) those who aspire to leadership are often advised to break the rules, write the authors of a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Astrid C. Homan at the University of Amsterdam and her colleagues also point to anecdotal evidence that rule-breakers can be more successful than people who follow the rules. So what should a would-be leader do? The answer, according to their new study, is not to break the rules, but bend them. 

Though previous research on leadership and rules has mostly focused on attitudes to people who break them, in the real world, rule bending is likely more prevalent. "How individuals deal with rules in daily life is often not black or white, but rather shows shades of gray," the team observes. As a corporate example, they cite a case involving Elon Musk. When Tesla had not yet been authorised to sell electric cars, Musk decided sell Tesla memberships that cost the same as a Tesla and that came with a 'free' Tesla. 

This case inspired a scenario in the team's first experiment on 149 people in the Netherlands. The participants read about a car company that was not allowed to sell cars before completing some lengthy admin but urgently needed income. In one vignette, an employee called James suggested using crowdfunding to raise money — a rule-abiding strategy. In another, James suggested selling cars anyway —  which would have entailed breaking the rules. In the third, James advocated selling memberships with a free car — the rule-bending idea.

The participants were then asked to imagine that the company needed its employees to take on additional tasks. They were asked to decide which of a range of leadership and more junior tasks should be given to James. They were also asked to rate James on measures of prestige ("Others respect and admire James", for example) and dominance (for example, "Others know that it is better to let him have his way.") The researchers included these measures because dominance and prestige are thought to be two independent routes to leadership, with dominance involving the use of force, or the threat of force, to gain social rank, while prestige involves the display of skills and knowledge that are valuable to the group. 

The team found that after advocating either breaking or bending the rules, James was assigned more leadership tasks than he was as an abider — in other words, he was seen as more of a leader when he wasn't strictly following the rules. As a rule-bender, however, he was granted more leadership tasks than he was as a breaker or an abider. 

The researchers' analysis also revealed that James got the highest dominance ratings while breaking the rules, whereas when he bent the rules he was granted the most prestige. The team believe that this difference in prestige explained why rule-bending came out on top. 

In a second experiment, the team explored whether varying contexts might affect these judgements. Participants read about 'Michael', an employee of an e-bike company in a similar situation to the car company in the first experiment. Michael advocated either finding sponsors (a rule-abiding idea), selling e-bikes anyway (rule-breaking), or selling memberships with a free e-bike (rule-bending). These participants then judged Michael's suitability for a leadership position in a range of different settings. 

Some of these settings were deliberately 'cooperative' — as the leader of a political party that had to find compromises with other parties to form a government, for instance. Others were 'competitive' — as leader of a political party engaged in fierce debate with other parties, for example. 

As in the first experiment, rule-breakers were seen as more dominant but less prestigious than rule-benders, who were seen as more dominant than rule-abiders. The team's analysis also revealed that rule-benders were perceived to have more leadership potential than rule-breakers in cooperative settings — however, in those settings, rule-abiders were preferred overall. In competitive settings, however, rule-breakers and rule-benders were both preferred over rule-abiders, but rule-benders came out on top.

There are some limitations to this study. One important example is that the experiments involved hypothetical scenarios. People might feel and decide differently in genuine workplace situations, which bring more complexity to these types of judgements. 

If these results do apply to the real world, though, there could be some important lessons. As the team observes, though some rules are unhelpful, many are vital for the healthy functioning of cooperative peaceful societies. Someone who is happy to bend the rules is also arguably likely to encourage rule-bending among their associates, proliferating dubious behaviour. While it might be a good strategy for them personally, rule-bending leaders could be bad news for society. But as the team also writes, if we understand the appeal of this type of person, we can also try to guard against their appointment to positions of power. 

Read the paper in full