“Rules are meant to be broken, especially when they limit our humanity.” 
— Misti Burmeister

Rules often save lives. Roads have speed limits to minimize danger in the case of car accidents. Most states have outlawed texting while driving for the same reason. And hospitals no longer allow anyone to smoke on the premises (even outside), given the health concerns of their clientele.

Every business, organization, and even family has rules in place to keep people safe. But sometimes rules cause more harm than good – especially when employees are more focused on avoiding trouble than using common sense.

Case in point: When my friend and former neighbor, Mayra, called me twice before 10 a.m., I knew something must be wrong. With a shaky and fearful voice, she explained, “I just fell again. I need help. How far are you from the building?”

“Twenty minutes,” I said. “I’m jumping in the car now!”

“No, no,” she said. “My husband will beat you here. I was hoping you were in the building.”

I had just moved out of the apartment building where Mayra still lives. Being paralyzed from the waist down, she had lost her balance in the bathroom and was barely holding herself up, trying not to hit her head against the tile wall in her shower.

“Do you know anyone in the building who can help?” she asked. “I’m not sure how long I can hold on.”

Feeling helpless, I hung up and called the building’s management office. “This is an emergency,” I told the guy who answered the phone. “Mayra is falling in her apartment and needs help right away.”

“You need to call the police,” he said.

Clearly, he didn’t understand the urgency of the situation, which infuriated me. Mayra has lived in the building for two years, and all the employees know about her condition.

“She will fall if someone doesn’t go help her … right now,” I demanded.

“We’re not allowed to enter any apartment without the police.”

I hung up and called my old neighbor Pete. Within a minute, he made it into Mayra’s apartment, got her upright, and asked how else he could help.

Thank goodness for Pete, but I’m still baffled by the staff’s unwillingness to help. I know there are rules in place to protect residents’ privacy, but when it’s a life-threatening situation, those rules aren’t helping anyone.

The same is true in any workplace – even when no one’s life is on the line. Rules are meant to be broken, especially when they limit our humanity – which shows up in creativity, innovation, and most importantly, a sincere desire to help another human being.

This is why Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, gives employees the freedom to do whatever they think is necessary to care for customers. For example, a woman whose husband died in a car accident called to ask about returning boots she’d purchased for him before his death. Not only did the call-center rep help with the return; she also ordered flowers for the widow, without asking a supervisor, and billed them to the company.

In an interview with Inc. magazine, Hsieh explained, “At the funeral, the widow told her friends and family about the experience. Not only was she a customer for life, but so were those 30 or 40 people at the funeral.”

No wonder Zappos is one of the fastest-growing Internet retailers of all time. That’s what happens when you put people before rules.

Join the Conversation: Does your office have rules in place that impede your team from truly caring for customers? Which rules are imperative, and which could be more like guidelines than hard-and-fast rules?

Misti Burmeister, best-selling author of From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across GenerationsHidden Heroes and Power Suck.

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