Why Unwritten Rules Shape Your Culture, Not The Vision
“Let me know how things work here.”
The first day at a new job is rough.
We are excited and proud but also fell nervous. Will I fit in? Will the reality of the job match my desires?
The first day at a job is when expectations meet reality. And that’s why both employers and employees feel anxious.
The first contact with the culture makes us wonder if we’ve made the right decision.
That happened to a former client recently. Maggie had just finished her onboarding. She was sitting at her new desk while trying to memorize the company’s vision statement.
“Let me tell you how things work here.” — a voice from the spontaneous welcome committee said.
This aspiring leader was reminding Maggie of the most important lesson at a new job. Fitting-in is more than just being liked. It’s about behaving according to the unwritten rules that govern an organization.
Unspoken rules define your culture
“Culture is the behavior you reward and punish.” — Jocelyn Goldfein
Maggie — a former client — is a high-perfoming, confident, and driven executive. That’s why she was so successful at her previous job.
But her smarts seemed less valuable now.
One month into her new job, Maggie was called to her boss’ office to discuss her performance. Maggie works in a large training organization in the business development department. Written rules say she should be making ten calls per day.
As her boss was reviewing the stats, Maggie couldn’t understand what was going on. Since she joined, thanks to her vast network, she was closing business at almost twice the rate of the rest of the team.
She was “accused” of making fewer calls than expected.
As illogical as it might sound, this particular company rewards fitting-in over being extraordinary.
Its unspoken rule seemed to be: “playing by-the-rules matters more than results” or “bosses reward mediocre employees and fear top performers.”
The behaviors organizations promote and tolerate, determine their real culture. They are more powerful than any written rules. Or that a mission statement, for that matter.
Unspoken rules encourage mediocre behaviors from both employees and managers.
This pattern creates a paradox at the workplace.
Companies believe that the most talented people are expensive. If they just analyze the salary/ cost, maybe. The truth is organizations pay mediocre employees way too much.
The ROI on mediocre employees is much lower. That’s what makes them more expensive. Especially if you factor in how they negatively affect top performers.
It’s organizations mismanagement what makes unwritten rules official.
Understanding Your Unwritten Rules
“You can observe a lot by watching.” — Yogi Berra, baseball catcher
As I discussed in my previous piece, an unsafe or toxic culture harms not just employee retention, but your bottom line too.
That’s what unwritten rules do: they erode trust, people want to survive, rather than to do their best work.
There’s often a gap between the ideal state organizations communicate and their reality. And this lack of transparency is what feeds unwritten rules.
Steve Simpson, the author of Cracking the Corporate Culture Code, explains how research in Australia and New Zealand has shown a dangerous gap between the desired culture and the actual operating one.
When managers’ behaviors are different from their words, employees become cynical about the organization’ mission and values, the author states.
Many senior managers speak about wanting a culture that encourages innovation, collaboration, open communication, and teamwork, but their behaviors are promoting mediocrity, fear, politics, and individualism.
Here are some examples I’ve seen in both large corporations and fast-growth startups. Use them to reflect on how your organization talks and behaves.
Sounds familiar? Which behaviors are promoting unspoken rules? Why?
I’m not advocating for lowering your organization’s ambition. But when a company’s visions are goals are disconnected from reality, they fuel skepticism.
That’s why I’m always helping my clients build and promote a culture of transparency.
Being candid about the reality of how an organization operates, will inspire people to help you. Doing the opposite will only widen the gap of trust.
How to deal with the unwritten rules
If you are a manager:
Provide a safe space for people to speak up: Are people rewarded for sharing their ideas? Do you let team members speak up first? Are you actively listening to other opinions? Or simply pretending there’s an open dialogue…
Make sure everyone abides by the same rules: Some organizations allow favorites or bosses to play outside the written rules. This creates a sense of injustice and unfairness.
Address the tensions between written and unwritten rules: Encourage your team to bring up their observation. Don’t just ask them to do so. Create a regular touch base to
Become more aware of your own behaviors: Are you consciously or not behaving in a way that promotes unspoken rules rather than being consistent with the values you preach? That’s okay. We all make mistakes. Make necessary adjustments and, most importantly, let your team you are challenging your behaviors.
To show you are serious, behave boldly: Your actions — what you reward and punish — is the standard that will define your team’s behaviors. Don’t just make statements, leaders need to behave boldly. The more risks you take, the more people will trust your words.
Acknowledging your mistakes will build trust. Embracing vulnerability not only shows you are human, but also that you trust yourself and are confident to confront your own flaws.
If you are a new employee:
Be patient. There’s always a gap and compering how you felt at a previous job won’t help.
Don’t fight what’s different, try to learn and reflect.
Ask questions, rather than provide solutions. As I told Maggie, people resist ideas from newcomers even if they are right. If you detect something that can be improved, present you observation as a question.
Challenge the team to reflect and find a solution, rather than show them how wrong they are. Most probably, they know but they have been beaten before trying to “change things around here.”
The problem with unwritten rules is not that they define informal behaviors. What’s wrong about it is that they define the real culture, one that is not aligned the vision established by the senior leadership.
Addressing and adjusting behaviors will help build a healthier culture. Promoting transparency drives the necessary safe space for people to speak up and address these tensions.
Unspoken rules are just symptoms, what do they say about your company?
Which management behaviors are promoting those unspoken rules?
Who benefits from those unspoken rules?
Before You Leave
If you too are interested in building a culture where talent and people can thrive, let’s keep the conversation going.
Reach out for a free consultation: firstname.lastname@example.org
Join our “Building a culture of Transparency” workshop. Learn how to understand and overcome unwritten rules.
Read my book “Stretch for Change.”
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