The Unwritten Rule


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Get a FREE e-book by joining our mailing list today! How does an organization address its unwritten rules? First, leaders need to expose them. Leaders must be objective, highly empathetic, and employ methods that ensure that employees feel reasonably safe in disclosing their deep and sometimes previously unarticulated thoughts and feelings about the workplace.

Interview Employees.


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One way to elicit unwritten rules is to interview employees. During the interviews, carefully document the responses for future analysis. Meet with Groups and Distribute Surveys. Another technique is for a leader to conduct group meetings coupled with surveys. Meet with employees of an area undergoing a change initiative to discuss the nature of unwritten rules and workplace assumptions, putting them at ease as much as possible.

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Then hand out a survey, consisting of open-ended questions geared to extracting the rules, and give participants a week to submit their responses anonymously. Near the conclusion of the meeting, encourage participants to share some of their responses within the group to elicit additional input.

Breaking The Unwritten Rules (part 3)

Solicit Feedback from the Edge. During the uncovering process, not all responses will reflect actual rules. Some may just illuminate symptoms, attitudes, or other unproductive behaviors in the organization. Once you uncover an unwritten rule, identify whether it benefits, harms, or has no impact on the organization. If the answer is yes, you should further reinforce and reward it. If the answer is no, you need to determine whether it is neutral and can be ignored or whether it is dysfunctional and needs attention. An example of an appropriate rule for a department striving for efficiency might be that the first person to arrive in the office each morning turns on the copier, thus enabling coworkers to avoid delays in using the machine.

Because of rapid technological changes, many rules related to technology rapidly drop off the radar screen of organizational memory. I witnessed a dysfunctional rule in a corporation where the CEO wanted to establish teamwork as an organizational norm. Then they must choose the best approach for moving forward.

Merely descriptive vs suggestive — The unwritten rule of trademark law

In the example of the management team whose bonus system contradicted its stated goal of creating teamwork, the reward system could be adjusted to include individual, team, and organizational performance, thus encouraging synergistic effort. The bottom line when counteracting dysfunctional rules is to remember that rules drive behavior. Whatever action you take to reverse an unwritten rule must lead unequivocally to the desired behavior.

Therefore, before implement- ing a policy, dictum, or action, carefully consider its possible systemic consequences. Also, routinely observe employee behavior and adjust the drivers of behaviors as necessary through performance metrics, leadership role modeling, or organizational policy. Unwritten rules and assumptions also exist at the industry level. It is in this realm that even greater potential competitive advantage resides.

By transcending the rules and assumptions that shape our worldview, companies can evolve new products, breakthrough innovations, and major industrywide changes.

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