Muhammad Shafi1*, and Lisbeth Mary John2

1 Assistant Prof. Dr. Muhammad Shafi, School of Management Studies, National Institute of Technology Calicut, India,

2 Ms. Lisbeth Mary John, School of Management Studies, National Institute of Technology Calicut, India,

*Corresponding author



Public sector service organizations are obligated to deliver their services to citizens efficiently and effectively. Unfortunately, many public sector organizations are underperformers and are often criticized for their bureaucratic structures leading to “red tape” and slow decision making. Rules are fundamental to bureaucratic systems and they channel employee activities and behaviour towards organizational goals and therefore, employee rule following is desirable for organizational sustainability. Regrettably, some rules may hinder organizational effectiveness as they fail to deliver appropriate outcomes to consumers, co-workers and to the organization in general. Under these circumstances, employees may decide to follow the rules or violate it. Pro-social rule breaking(PSRB), emerge because of organizational members’ desire to use their initiative and do what he or she believes is needed to perform the job in an effective, responsible, and responsive manner. When employees choose to break rules, they are faced with making decisions on their own, unprotected by the decision-making hierarchy of the organization, yet evidence shows that organizational members on all levels break rules. Since rule breaking occurs without organizations collapsing, it has to be assumed that an organizational member understands what rules to break and under what circumstances to break them. The goal of the present study was to understand the rule attributes that stimulate pro-social rule breaking and the circumstances that force employees do that.

The present study examined pro-social rule breaking among frontline managers of a public utility in India. Frontline managers lead two or three lines of frontline employees and interact directly with the public on a daily basis. Frontline leadership is critical for public organizational performance (BCG Focus, August 2017). Pro-social rule breaking behaviour of frontline managers have the potential to foster organizational effectiveness by ensuring stakeholder interests and expectations. Therefore public organizations need to pay greater attention to their frontline managers and their discretionary behaviour like pro-social rule breaking that promote public approval and service satisfaction.

PURPOSE: The objective of the study was to examine pro-social rule breaking behaviour and to study the effects of rule attributes on the decision to engage in rule breaking. Borrowing from green tape theory, the present study examined the influence of rule characteristics such as rule validity and rule consistency particularly relevant for explaining pro-social rule breaking decisions in a public sector organization where rules are highly formalized.

METHODOLOGY: The study used a sequential mixed method explanatory design wherein a qualitative investigation preceded   two vignette based experiments. In the qualitative phase of the study, interviews were held with frontline managers of the public utility for collecting descriptions of pro-social rule breaking. Purposive-maximum variation sampling was used with the base criteria of inclusion as two years’ frontline experience. They ranged in age 34 to 55, had an average of 15.4 years of organizational experience, and 27% were women. The respondents (n=22) were requested to narrate as many examples of rule breaking with no self-interests or negative intentions. The examples of the phenomena were independently coded as rule breaking or not by two senior managers (tenure> 10 years) who have not participated in the data collection. Interrater agreement was 100%. Subsequently, the evaluators were asked to classify the rule breaking examples to self-focused (any example that appeared to be primarily motivated by a desire for personal gain or sense of anger or unfairness) or as “other focused” (pro-social). Interrater agreement was 100%. The filtered PSRB examples (n= 10) were further evaluated by a group of middle-level public managers (n=4; Purposive-expert sampling) to identify two examples of PSRB with high realism. These examples were used to formulate two vignettes A and B used in second phase of the study.

The second phase used a between-subjects 2x2 experimental design in which two rule attributes were manipulated. The research subjects were frontline managers of the public utility (n=286; stratified sampling) and after removing participants with high social desirability scores, research participants (n=257) were randomly assigned into one of four experimental conditions featuring an organizational rule (vignettes) that was either (1) validity- high and consistent-high, (2) validity-high and consistent-low, (3) validity-low and consistent-high, and (4) validity-low and consistent-low.  Each participant responded to two different experimental conditions and answered one of the four versions of vignette A and one of the four versions of vignette B. Pro-social rule breaking intentions were measured using six items (Morrison, 2006) and social desirability using a 33 item scale (Crowne & Marlowe,1960).Age, gender and social desirability were controlled. Factorial analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used for data analysis.

FINDINGS: The results of the study revealed that rule validity and consistency influence frontline managers’ decision to engage in pro-social rule breaking and endorsed the view that rules with low validity and inconsistent application are generally violated. Interaction effects of rule validity and consistency on pro-social rule breaking also were noted.

ORIGINALITY: While a range of organizational and individual antecedents has been presented for pro-social rule breaking, the rule design has received scarce empirical attention. Focussing on a public sector organization, the present study clarified the rule attributes and the circumstances that make frontline managers take the risk of pro-social rule breaking. The broad implication is that frontline managers break those rules which are not valid and consistently applied. Therefore our research findings provide beneficial guidelines to the public managers in rule design, rule enforcement and employee constructive deviance management.


Dahling, J. J., Chau, S. L., Mayer, D. M., & Gregory, J. B. (2012). Breaking rules for the right reasons? An investigation of pro-social rule breaking. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33(1), 21-42.

DeHart-Davis, L., 2008. Green tape: A theory of effective organizational rules. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 19(2), pp.361-384.

Morrison, E. W. (2006). Doing the job well: An investigation of pro-social rule breaking. Journal of Management, 32(1), 5-28.

Keywords: Frontline Manager, Pro-social rule breaking, Public Sector Organizations, Rule Consistency, Rule Validity


CITATION: Abstracts & Proceedings of SOCIOINT 2019- 6th International Conference on Education, Social Sciences and Humanities, 24-26 June 2019- İstanbul, TURKEY

ISBN: 978-605-82433-6-1