OPINION: The Social Contract: Is it good to break the rules?

Robert Labayen

Posted at Sep 12 2016 08:57 PM

Not too long after college, two of my sons wanted to have a tattoo and they asked for my permission. I didn’t like it. But I realized I knew tattooed people who were good people.

So, I said “If you want to sport a tattoo or wear earrings, you must be really good at something. I think rockers wrote good music before they were tattooed. Michael Jordan was already Jordan before he had an earring." In other words, I wanted them to earn it. “You have to be fierce before you try to look fierce.”

I said the same thing to my ad agency art director who asked me if it was a good idea to dye his hair all white. He wanted to look like a cool creative guy.

In any creative department, it’s so hard to implement office rules on attire. Every now and then I tell young guys “if you want to show individuality through your fashion, show it in your craft as well. Don’t show me work that looks generic."

Some people break more rules than just the dress code. They come to work very late every day. Others smoke in prohibited areas. Some refuse to meet with clients or love to curse the people they work with. Yes, there are people who think they are the geniuses who have earned the right to be eccentric, difficult or offensive.

This is why we need to appreciate the social contract theory.

The social contract is the concept behind organized society. It is the voluntary agreement among individuals to surrender some of their freedoms in exchange for the protection of their other rights. 

Society preserves itself when citizens adhere to some traditions and norms or conform to rules sometimes at the expense of their own preferences and comforts. Social contract is a means to avoid chaos, anarchy and the total collapse of society.

So, even though we are the office superstar, we must agree to come on time, wear occasion-appropriate attire and always use respectful language, among other acceptable actions. We sacrifice some of our preferences and comforts so that the company can protect our jobs.

There are well-known mavericks who inspire us instead of offend us because they respect our sensibility. Richard Branson’s extreme adventures are a metaphor for his daring business style. Pope Francis’ simplicity is a demonstration of the essence of Christianity.

Leaders must be very careful with a nonconformist posture if they're doing it for shock value. That's because the boss’s behavior is often symbolic. If they contest people’s values, resent criticism and disregard due process, for example, people might see their actions as the new norm. Their unorthodox style may be multiplied by lower-tiered clones.

Once the social contract is fragmented, the organization may fall into a state of confusion and uncertainty. It may become too dependent on the single leader who will appear to be rewriting all the rules. The initial gains of quick decisions and radical results will not be sustained unless the rules and the roles become clear again.

If we break a rule, we must be sure we are breaking new ground. If we change the rules, we should be replacing them with better ones.

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If you have concerns about your job or if you wish to suggest a topic, you may email me at [email protected]

Read more about ExecuTips on www.robertlabayen.com

About the Author:

Robert Labayen spent 22 years in advertising prior to joining ABS-CBN in 2004. He was VP-Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi and Executive Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson, two of the country's leading ad agencies. He is currently the Head of Creative Communications Management at ABS-CBN. His job involves inspiring people to be their best. He is a writer, painter and songwriter.