Breaking protocol

The U.S. president-elect has been drawing fire for having conversations with foreign leaders in which he broke protocol. His critics have charged, for example, that he didn’t talk to the right person, or that he didn’t have the right people in the room.


Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in The King and I — a story about (among other things) breaking protocol

In fact, the criticism has focused much more on the president-elect’s alleged disregard for protocol than on the substance of his conversations.

I’m not here today to judge Mr. Trump’s actions or his words. I want to talk about protocol-breaking and how it touches all of us as professionals.

All of us — employees, contractors, consultants — work with organizations that have their own unique ways of doing things.

For example, in various places where I’ve worked I’ve found that:

  • A manager can never be transparent: they must defend every edict from higher up as if it were their own.
  • Email is used for almost all day-to-day communication. It’s considered impolite to pick up the phone and call someone to ask a question.

When you arrive in an organization like that, is it OK to break protocol? Under what circumstances? If you choose to break protocol should you do it quietly or openly?

Here are the guidelines I follow.

Don’t break protocol until you understand why it’s there

Why is the protocol there in the first place? It might be driven by legal or regulatory requirements — so, painful as it might be, no one can deviate from it. Perhaps other protocols were tried and this one was found to be more effective.

How do you gain this kind of understanding? Simply ask. Ask your manager, or ask a trusted colleague, why do we do it this way?

Don’t break protocol to raise your profile

It’s tempting to enter a new situation and start showing them how it’s done. Airing your suggestions, criticisms, and complaints in a public forum (like social media) will get you noticed, all right. It might even bring about, in the short term, the results you’re looking for.

But there’s a cost. By going public with what something that would best be handled in private, you’re likely to — intentionally or not — of embarrass people. You might well find that those people are slow to forgive.

When seeking fame, be careful that you don’t gain notoriety instead. They’re not the same thing.

Do break protocol when needed for effective communication

Sometimes you have to talk with a specific person, and sometimes you have to do it in a specific fashion: in person, or over the phone, rather than by text or email. This is often known as cutting through the bulls–t.

Do break protocol when you clearly see a better way

Sometimes the process really is busted. When one phone call will take the place of two phone calls, six emails, and twelve SharePoint downloads, go for it. You’re paid to do your job as efficiently and effectively as possible. Earn your keep.

Be savvy enough to recognize those times when the only effective solution demands a break in protocol. And when you make the break, do it in a way that’s respectful toward your colleagues and toward the existing corporate culture.

Those are my guidelines. What are yours?

2 thoughts on “Breaking protocol

  1. stevefjong

    Interesting post, Larry! We had the pleasure of watching Yul Brynner in his last tour of “The King And I.” After thousands of performances he changed things up a little to relieve boredom. The King’s protocol was that no one’s head could be higher than his, and to drive home the point he bowed deeply to Anna, demanding she bow back lower and lower until they were both lying on the floor. With his head on the stage he ad-libbed, “dusty…” and drew a big laugh.

    Indeed, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If you’re looking to lead a team, the question “what will you do in the first 30 days?” has no a priori answer. “I’ll call a meeting, take the policies&procedures manual, and light it on FIRE!” is wrong if the team is functioning effectively and smoothly; “I won’t change a thing” is wrong if the team is dysfunctional. Definitely ask first…

    Even if you do need to change things, it’s not as simple as just breaking protocol if you see a better way. As I’ve gotten old–er, as I’ve gained experience, I’ve gone from not knowing there was a better way, to knowing there was a better way and pushing for change, to knowing that something WAS the better way and resisting change for change’s sake. Transformational leadership involves a three-step process: unfreeze, change, and refreeze. Assuming there’s some better way, you want to “unfreeze” the protocol, make the change, and then “refreeze” the protocol in the new way so the change sticks. You don’t want backsliding, you want improvement.

  2. Larry Kunz Post author

    You’re right, Steve. While we shouldn’t shy away from change, change for change’s sake is never the way to go. Thanks for sharing your story about The King and I: seeing that must’ve been quite a thrill.


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