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Beware of your organization's Unwritten Ground Rules

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com

One important factor to consider in your corporate culture is the range of unwritten or unspoken aspects of the culture – your organization’s ‘unwritten ground rules.’ Unwritten ground rules explain why many corporate vision, mission and values statements, policies and procedures don’t necessarily produce the desired result. Actions speak louder than words, and employees will follow unspoken, expected patterns of behavior rather than comply with words in the corporate mission statement or various documented policies.

Why is the UGR concept important to communicators? Because we deal in words, and if our words are ineffective, so are we, and the people we represent. Therefore we need to come to grips with the UGR concept and how to counter it.

Unwritten ground rules (UGRs), a term created by Australian consultant, Steve Simpson, largely explains why employees don’t follow the formal rules. UGRs are a powerful force that dictates behaviors in a team or organization. UGRs are people’s perceptions of ‘the way we do things around here’ – people quickly understand the difference between words and actions. UGRs are inferred values because they are derived from the behaviors that are allowed in the workplace.

Many organizations communicate the desired direction and desired values/behaviours to their employees, but often there is a gap between intent and reality. Research in 2004 among 132,000 employees in 900 Australian and New Zealand organizations showed a serious gap between preferred (desired) cultures and actual operating cultures within the organizations surveyed.

The research showed that senior managers wanted cultures that encourage initiative, cooperation, teamwork, goal setting, creativity and commitment, but the cultures they actually developed encouraged politics, internal competition, individualism, avoidance of blame and an unwillingness to commit – a sad, but all-too-common, state of affairs. Rather than the words of senior managers, the real sources of culture are the organizational structures, processes, technologies and leadership behaviour – and, of course, the unwritten ground rules. When managers’ actions are acutely different from their words, employees become cynical about the organizational mission and values.

UGRs hold power despite the documented corporate words. For instance, an organization’s value statement may refer to having open and transparent management, but when staff try to see their manager, she may keep her door shut and they can see she resents being interrupted.

Many organizations include in their mission statement something along the lines that customers are the most important priority for the organization. However, the reality of typical employee attitudes or UGRs is more along with lines of:

  • "Customers are all complainers."

  • "Customers are a necessary pain."

  • "Customers are unnecessarily demanding."

Examples of unwritten ground rules:

Mission Topic Value Statement Actual unwritten ground rules
Trust Our organization is open and accountable We keep things close to our chest and only reveal information on a ‘need-to-know’ basis
Respect We treat each other with respect at all times. We are courteous and value other opinions. When bosses attend meetings, people don’t say their real opinions.
Teamwork We work together to achieve positive outcomes and respect the collaborative democratic decision- making process. “What the boss says, goes.”
Responsiveness We respond to issues promptly and encourage customer involvement. The speed with which we respond to issues depends on who is complaining.
Service We exist to serve our customers and seek to continually improve all we do. Being customer-focused is to invite more customer complaints, which we can do without.

 

This underlying culture exists within most organizations of any size. The UGRs are simply " the way we do things around here," which is passed on from one employee to another. We don’t need to know why - we just do things the way they have always been done.

If employees defy UGRs they are likely to suffer by being ostracized from their work group.

Although UGRs can be positive, they are more likely to be negative and to potentially undermine business strategies unless they are understood and harnessed for the good of the organization.

The easiest way to identify UGRs is to ask people to complete the "around here" statement for key aspects of organizational activity. For example:

  • “Around here, customers are…”

  • “Around here, customer complaints are…”

  • “Around here, being open and honest gets you…”

  • “Around here, when you criticize your boss…”

  • “Around here, when it comes to spending money…”

Once you have identified the UGRs in your organization, you can move to harness the good ones and change the bad ones to meet the requirements of the culture that is sought.

Steve Simpson advocates a seven-step strategy for harnessing the positive values of UGRs:

  • Ensure that management and staff understand the concept of UGRs.

  • Get an external perspective from someone from another organization that has already addressed their UGRs to fully understand the issues that exist.

  • Identify existing UGRs – by using the “around here” statements outlined above.

  • Create positive UGRs – involve your organization in converting existing and developing new UGRs that support positive behavior.

  • Ensure your managers “walk the talk” – demonstrating their personal commitment and behaving in a way that supports the positive UGRs.

  • Put UGRs on management agendas and include them as a standing agenda item for business meetings.

  • Regularly monitor performance against positive UGRs.

If you find your organization’s mission statement and goals are not being supported by employees, the problem may lie with the prevailing unwritten ground rules. You can initiate action with management by moving to counter the impact of negative UGRs.

 

Steve Simpson’s book, Cracking the Corporate Culture Code (ISBN 0-9579316-0-3), provides more detail about unwritten ground rules.

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website, www.cuttingedgepr.com, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.

 

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