As I See It: Unwritten Rules
June 6, 2022 Victor Rozek
Organizational change is always a bastard. Getting hundreds – if not thousands – of people rowing at the same speed in the same direction is about as problem-free a proposition as . . . well, nothing. Getting people to agree is never easy. But they like to be employed, too, because eating is a good habit.
Companies generally have a stated vision, imparted goals and formal policies, but they tend to morph over time or are superseded by regime and marketplace changes. Alternately, they are simply ignored. Although desired behavior and motivation are outlined in job descriptions and employee handbooks, once read they tend to be forgotten. Regardless, there is often a dissonance between what actually motivates people, and what a company assumes motivates employees.
People typically behave in their own self interest so, if they are not fully compliant with company policy, there is usually a practical reason. Compensation structures, for instance, often invite ignoring or working around stated policies. More than one sales force promised customers hardware features without first getting a sign-off from engineering.
Once firmly established, most systems naturally resist change. That’s how bureaucracies survive: they stubbornly outlive the people trying to reform them. But while rules governing activities such as sport are well defined and rarely modified, business must contend with ever-changing marketplace complexities, competition, and a future rife with uncertainties.
While these conditions present an urgent need and a ponderous challenge to achieving meaningful change, author/trainer/consultant Robert Hargrove sees an even greater obstacle: Unwritten rules.
Every company, he argues in his book Masterful Coaching, operates by a set of unwritten rules that undermine even the most compelling goals and visions. Informal, generally accepted beliefs about the company drive employee behavior more predictably than written policy. They are the reason why “…seven out of ten attempts to achieve stretch goals or introduce real change fail…”
The problem is that unwritten rules create unforeseen consequences. Some examples: If having widespread knowledge of the company business is a stated goal for promotion, then job-hopping becomes the unwritten rule, thus promoting instability.
If the boss only promotes people who kiss his/her ass, the behavior of those who attain promotion will inform the unwritten rules for others seeking it. Some of the more talented managers or managerial candidates may leave the company because they quickly discover that speaking truth to power is rewarded by career stagnation.
If the reward system is pegged to increasing quarterly profits, the unwritten rules will justify taking shortcuts and bending ethical practices in order to achieve that end. Such ethical lapses often result in downstream litigation, government scrutiny, public cynicism, and a company name change. Think Meta.
A “do it right the first time” strategy, while practical and cogent, often discourages people from taking risks. Failure is not treated as a learning experience, but as a threat that no one wants to be associated with. Better to trod the well-worn path and do the safe and familiar, rather than risk drawing attention by trying something new that may require rework.
It’s common for companies to want to empower employees and teams, but those stated goals bump up against the empire-building aspirations of competing department heads. If information is key to empowerment, by unwritten fiat it is withheld from potential rivals; competing departments are deliberately given limited support. (This practice is clearly visible in law enforcement where competing agencies refuse to share information, often at great public cost.)
Then, there are the unwritten rules about what can be discussed openly. Beyond standard prohibitions against political or religious discourse, companies often frown on employees openly discussing problems. The company’s public posture is one of can-do competence. But projects are delayed because no one wants to ask for help or look bad by admitting they are besieged by nagging problems. Thus, everyone waits until the accumulation of small issues creates a crisis.
There are many unwritten rules about public criticism of the company and its management. In the extreme, employees are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements, ostensibly to protect proprietary information, but just as often to protect the company from embarrassing disclosures or illegal activity.
Advancement is often tied to the unwritten rule of networking. While hard work and achievement may be the stated formula for success, in many companies everyone understands it’s not what you know but who you know that ultimately determines promotion.
From an employee perspective, there are good reasons for following unwritten rules: They create safety, a sense of belonging, and often offer a compass for navigating the corporate political morass. Anyone seeking to create meaningful change, Hargrove notes, will first have to understand the unwritten rules in play.
Peter Scott-Morgan, a consultant interviewed by Hargrove for his book, advises: “The way to create an opening for real change is to close the gap between the formal policies and the unwritten rules.”
The fact that such wide gaps exist, speaks to the disconnect between the dictums and desires of top management and the realities that shape, delay, or derail their implementation. Closing the gap will require not only discovering which unwritten rules are shaping employee behavior, but why they have evolved to exert subliminal influence over policies and procedures.
Unwritten rules impact all strata of human activity, from family systems, to relationships, to business, to politics. Over time unwritten rules can become mores, and mores can acquire the stubborn power of tradition. “That’s just the way we do it,” is perhaps the most enduring and stifling unwritten rule of all.
Several years ago, I heard a story about a family that had gathered for Christmas dinner. As was their tradition, they prepared ham. There were three generations present and a young girl was in the kitchen helping her parents assemble the meal. As the ham was placed in a large casserole dish and prepared to go into the oven, she asked her mother, “Why did you cut the ends off the ham?” Her Mom paused for a moment, shrugged and said: “I don’t know, it’s just how you make ham.”
Not satisfied with the answer, the young girl asked her Grandmother who had no further insight, explaining simply that this was the way she had been taught by her mother. “You can ask Great-Grandma when we pick her up for dinner.”
As the ham baked, the family piled into the car and drove to a nearby assisted living facility to pick up Great-Grandma. On the way home the young girl asked: “Granny, why do we cut the ends off the ham?” Her Great-Grandmother was momentarily confused, and then smiled as she explained: “When your Grandma was little we were very poor and we only had one small pan, and if the ham was too big it wouldn’t fit. So we just cut the ends off.”
The future is yet to be formally written. How much of the ham we lose by following rules that don’t exist will depend in part on how diligently we question them.