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.
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?