The Intention to Adhere

What “Following the Rules” Really Means

I often hear people ask, “What happens when someone breaks a rule?” And there are some common, technical answers to that question (see here). But I’ve recently come to a new interpretation of that question — one which makes the question so extraordinarily insightful, I feel the need to apologize for not recognizing it sooner. Let me explain.

Holacracy is the constitution. And the constitution is a set of rules every organization must follow. But it’s a misnomer, because when I say you “must follow” the rules, I don’t mean you actually will follow the rules.

As with any set of rules, they are there to help keep things aligned, and there are two ways this happens: 1) by orienting someone so rules aren’t broken in the first place, 2) by re-orienting someone when rules are inevitably broken.

Too often people assume that rule-following is only about the first. And forget that, as least as Holacracy is concerned, breaking rules will happen. And as a fact of reality, it’s actually OK.

In short, it’s OK to break rules, because well, it will happen anyway and ignoring that reality means people won’t actually use the system effectively because they won’t risk the possibility of breaking a rule for some imagined ramification.

What Happens When a Rule is Broken?

Think of it this way. Imagine you are going to give negative feedback to two people. They both have the same amount of tolerance — let’s say 100 units of feedback tolerance. But this isn’t enough information to really know how you should approach giving that feedback, because you don’t know: “What happens when/if I go past their level of tolerance?” i.e., “How will they respond to THAT?”

So, if going over 100 units of feedback for Person A means that they get uncomfortable and a little agitated, you know that you can risk going up to 100 units because there is a way to adapt and respond should/if you exceed the limit.

Now, compare that to Person B for whom exceeding their limit means they freak out and start stabbing you. Are you going to even risk getting close to 100, knowing that should/if you exceed it, you’ll become a human pin-cushion? Of course you won’t. Maybe you risk getting up to 90% of the limit, or in the case of a stabber, maybe only 75%.

All of this is to say, telling someone to “follow the rules,” isn’t enough. You need to clarify for them, “What happens when rules (inevitably) get broken? What will be the system’s response?”

If you’re new to Holacracy and your company has just started to practice, you may feel a lot of fear about breaking the rules. And being told that they “need to follow” them probably contributes to that fear.

It’s a insufficient and categorical statement which leaves a lot up to the imagination. And most people will associate publicly violating an authority with feelings of shame and humiliation. Meaning, the imagined penalty for breaking a rule is a potentially horrific social shaming.

Knowing that they don’t know how to play this game yet, new practitioners then logically respond by:

  • Acting out an obsessive need to understand the whole system, so they can feel confident they won’t break rules.
  • Cleverly trying to minimize the visibility of the rules, so their unintended violations may go unnoticed.
  • Creating unconscious social agreements to avoid challenging each other on the rules, because if I shame you, then you might shame me.

Now, for me, this explains a lot. I have mistaken many of these behaviors as something other than what they are. But knowing this, opens up some new possibilities.

The Intention to Adhere

First, I recommend clarifying that “following the rules,” means having an “intention to adhere.” Meaning, when you agree to follow these rules, you are really just agreeing that you’ll do your best to follow them, knowing that you will break them.

As with the feedback example, if someone is asked to follow a new set of rules, they need to know the expectations about adherence. Is this a rule like, “Always be nice?” or, “Don’t kill people?” or is it like the law of gravity? These are three very different kinds of rules.

The intention to adhere provides an important qualification to what “following the rules,” really means. It opens to door to explain that the expectation is that we will support each other by pointing out when someone steps out-of-bounds. Just like when a group of people are learning a new game together — it will take the collective intelligence to really figure things out.

This way, the practice can become truly self-regulating. Each group may want to talk explicitly about how they’ll communicate missteps in a way that feels supportive and clarifying (e.g. “Just curious, what role of mine are you asking?”) rather than some form of thought-police.


Telling someone to follow Holacracy’s rules isn’t enough. The point is to replace some limiting and implicit social norms, learned from years of working in a management hierarchy, with clear explicit rules. But the penalty for breaking social norms is felt deep in our bones: you get judged, shamed, or embarrassed.

So, the new practitioner can be forgiven for assuming that the same is true for these new Holacracy rules. Especially, because nothing is usually said about what “following the rules” really means. Nothing is said about what happens when someone breaks a rule. That vacuum simply gets filled with fear — fear that is completely justifiable given their experience.

Instead, tell people that following the rules simply means, “An intention to adhere.” So, if someone points out a rule violation, the response isn’t, “That’s stupid! I’m not doing that!” the response is curious, open, and adaptive (e.g. “Oh, I didn’t know that. Weird. So, why is that a rule?”). Hopefully, this knowledge will result in more humane and effective Holacracy practice, or at the very least, less stabbing.