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Should you break unwritten rules in the workplace?

In my previous newsroom, there was an unwritten rule that no one could park in the covered parking area unless they were an top level executive. Yet, the parking spots there were plentiful. One day, a friend of mine decided to break the unwritten rule and park there. No one said a word and she enjoyed getting into her nice cool car after work.

It's odd how unwritten workplace rules get started.

This morning, I read an article in The Denver Post about unwritten workplace rules. It noted that some have been universally followed for generations - things like pay your dues, don't go over your boss' head and stay off the executive elevator.

The article went on to say that Millennials, the generation currently entering the workforce in large numbers, are seriously upsetting those conventions: They have taken a confidence into their jobs because they are digital natives and are used to knowing more about technology than their teachers and parents. 

"The workforce of the future doesn't get the unwritten rules of hierarchy," said Seth Mattison, founder of FutureSight Labs.

Mattison offered an anecdote shared by the chief executive of a distribution company with $4 billion a year in sales after a new crop of interns started. He was deluged by a steady stream of 22-year-olds rolling into his office asking to meet for coffee.

Reading that made me wonder if all of us, regardless of our generation, should break some of the unwritten rules. The only reason I began writing about work life balance was because I broke the unwritten rule of staying in the newsroom hierarchy and brought the idea of a work life balance column more than a decade ago to the publisher of the newspaper.

Sometimes, breaking unwritten rules pays off. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the risk is worth taking the chance. Millennials, more often, are taking that chance. For example, they believe age isn't a factor in who generates great ideas. They are willing to break unwritten rules to make their ideas heard, often going right to the top to get their ideas recognized quickly. 

That attitude should be embraced by all of us. 

Mattison says breaking unwritten rules successfully comes from earning small wins that build credibility. In other words, prove yourself first.

I've found the key to fulfilling work life balance often comes from proposing ideas that may seem, on the surface, to break the rules. In my experience, breaking unwritten rules can be a good thing --- if done smartly after you've earned some respect.

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