Sometimes Breaking the Rules is Necessary to Reach a Goal

Sometimes Breaking the Rules is Necessary to Reach a Goal
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As a trainer, I can be a stickler for the rules, and I love following well-articulated, logical guidelines as we work together to reach clear objectives. However, as a human, I understand that other human beings don’t always fit in those beautiful little cookie cutter shapes that I try to shove them into. And of course, since this is Lessons on Leadership, I have a story about these two worlds colliding.

Here’s the scene: Me, a young Peace Corps volunteer, teaching math, in English, to a class of 90 Tanzanian students at a time (nope, not 90 students throughout the day, but 90 students crammed into the room at once). As a bonus, that room has no air conditioning, and those students have varying knowledge of math and English. Goodbye, cookie cutter…

Assess potential roadblocks

It became clear early on that we were having issues. Students were drifting off during class, unable to focus on the lesson. I started to break down the various problems I saw. The intense heat was beyond my control. However, as I talked with my students, it was abundantly clear that the language barrier was also a significant contributor to their inattentiveness. For many of my students, English was their third language. They grew up speaking their tribal language. While they were in elementary, classes were taught in Swahili, but once they got to high school, every class was suddenly taught in English. I realized that this transition was too much for many of my students, and I was failing them.

Create a new and better path

To head this off, one day, I began teaching the lesson in my broken Swahili. More than a few laughs met my attempt, so I paused to let them take a vote. I told them that my desire was for them to learn, and I was willing to do whatever I could to make that happen. They could choose whether I continued in the best Swahili I could manage, or they could decide to try to understand the lessons in English. It was unanimous. The lessons continued in Swahili. For me, it was an awkward experience. I was often self-conscious and had to laugh at my mistakes. But it was worth it. My students were more attentive. Their scores improved. They were finally able to digest the information I was sharing with them. And, since I was also the English teacher, I made sure the language learning wasn’t falling through the cracks. Both objectives were being met, and by separating them, the attempts were yielding better results. The students were able to learn at their pace rather than the expectations set by my precious rules.

Always be ready to update the plan

Of course, the rule lover in me keeps needing to relearn this lesson, especially as a trainer. It amazes me how often I have come into a new project and nearly allowed these preconceived expectations to derail the main objective. For example, in my career as a corporate trainer, there have been technicians who were unable to achieve the objective of a class until they were allowed additional time to practice. There have been other employees who struggle to complete a task while watched by a classroom full of peers. In both instances, the completion of this training was mandatory for their continued employment. By understanding and adapting to the learning styles of these individuals, the objectives were obtained. These employees were not less capable than their colleagues. Actually, many of them went on to be exceptional employees. They simply needed someone to set aside the rules, reassess what the true objective was, and help them, as an individual, to meet those expectations.

Strict adherence to the rules can be so tempting. It means I don’t have to worry about the human variable, and I can keep working with my one size fits all mold. We all lose when we set that standard. Students fall miserably behind. Rockstar employees get turned down. As employers, trainers, teachers, and humans, we are better when we remember that learning paths are not all the same for each person. Even if it makes us uncomfortable, it is a beautiful thing to meet people where they are and help them grow into what they need to be.


Jacquelyn Adams is a storyteller and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, vlogging about the future of work… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.


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