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Unwritten (and Written) Rules

| November 5, 2019

by Jim Bruce

… they surround us


No matter where you look, you will find both unwritten and written rules – rules at work, rules that are personal to you, rules for your family, rules about your social interactions, rules at home, rules everywhere. Some are “written” by others including your organization, and many, likely the majority, by yourself. Most of these rules are so emmeshed in our lives that we do not spend much time thinking about them, we simply follow the rule. For the most part, these rules have a positive impact on ordering and improving our lives. However, they can also morph into unhelpful and sometimes manipulative behaviors that are not helpful to either ourselves or those around us.
The provost at a small New England college told me in a coaching session some years ago, that one of the unwritten personal rules he had for workdays was, after breakfast, to get in his car, drive to the college, park in his parking space and go to his office. And, that worked well except that on one particular day, a Sunday, he discovered as he was parking at the college that he missed the word “work” as he was unconsciously applying his rule and had gone to work instead of church. I’m sure that you have had occasions where you have misapplied one of your rules as well. Most of the time, as it was here, no major catastrophe occurs. 
An IT manager at an organization had a rule of typically working until around 6 p.m. and expecting the staff to work until he had departed for the day. On days when the manager needed or wanted to leave early, he would have someone pick him up away from the parking lot so his staff wouldn’t see him leave and could continue to see his distinctive car in its usual parking space. They just believed he was in meetings elsewhere, at least until they figured out what he was doing. Here the result was a loss of credibility on the part of the manager.
Unwritten rules and the ways things are done, for good and for bad, are ingrained in all parts of our lives. They are a key part of the “cultures” we exist in. If you stop for a moment and do a quick inventory of your actions since you woke up this morning, you’ll discover rules have significantly guided your actions from the moment you awoke. And, they are both little rules, e.g., how you put toothpaste on your toothbrush, bigger rules like coordinating your calendar with your family or apartment-mates or dropping kids off at the bus stop, as well as a myriad of plans and rules for your workday. For the most part, we don’t give much thought to any of these rules. We just execute our day.
Karen Davis,in her paper Why You Should Write Down Your Company’s Unwritten Rules, while focusing on your organization, argues that we need to revisit our rules from time to time (at least annually). She writes, if our “norms aren’t regularly revisited to ensure that they align with the organization’s goals, and if leaders aren’t careful about how their behavior contributes to them, they [the rules] can morph from a positive force to a destructive one.” This need to revisit our rules is something that exists in all phases of our life.
Davis provides a process with three steps to guide us:

  1. Discover your own unwritten rules. They primarily exist in your memory, manifest by your actions. This can be exhausting so do it in pieces while also being alert to behaviors you (or others) do that catch your attention and cause you to ask “Why?” and whether that rule is helpful. Be mindful of how your rules impact others. For example, if you have a rule that “all of the meetings you lead start on time,” be sure others who attend your meetings know that. And, you be sure that you arrive before the appointed time. Here is a place where the oft-quoted leadership rule that “if you arrive after five minutes before the meeting, you’re late” truly applies.
  2. Challenge your own unwritten rules. After you discover the rules that you, with contributions from others, have set for yourself, ask whether they are accomplishing what was intended. Does the rule indeed help you accomplish what you expected it would, for you and/or for others impacted by the rule? For example, if your practice is to start all of your staff meetings on time, and there are stragglers, seek to understand why some staff are late. Do they always arrive late to early morning meetings? All meetings? Do they come late because they are disinterested in the early topics on the agenda? Do they feel the meeting is a waste of their time? Look for ways to change the rule so that it works better for everyone.
  3. And, when you change one of your rules, you communicate (Davis’ word here is “overcommunicate”) that the rules are changed, and why they were changed. You cannot assume that others will read your mind and observe the change and immediately fall in line. 

Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, in their paper Culture Takes Over When the CEO Leaves the Room,2 also stress the importance of communicating the change in the unwritten rules that define the culture. In the essay they told a story about David Neeleman. When Neeleman started JetBlue one of his rules was that everyone was in service to the customers. To demonstrate that he really meant everyone, once each month he flew as a member of the crew. “He would put on an apron and serve coffee up and down the aisle, introducing himself to passengers. The gesture not only electrified passengers on these flights, but also sent a buzz throughout the entire organization. [In this way,] Neeleman made it explicit that everyone, at every level, was in service to JetBlue customers.”
We all live in an environment that is rule rich. Most of the time we execute the rule without giving it much thought. Most of the rules are solid, and good for us personally and organizationally. Some, however, may be beyond their “use date” and need to be rethought, rewritten, and/or abandoned. Do take some time this week to begin the process of revalidating your personal rules as well as those you have “installed” in the organization you are responsible for.
Make it a great week for you and those around you.  .  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Karen Niovitch Davis, Why You Should Write Down Your Company’s Unwritten Rules, Harvard Business Review, October 2019.
  2. Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, Culture Takes Over When the CEO Leaves the Room, Harvard Business Review, May 2012.