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Beware of your organization’s Unwritten Ground Rules

01 Jun, 2020 Change communication, Leadership role

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

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.’ These are the behaviors and routines followed by many employees which may or may not line up with their employer’s business ‘values.’ Unwritten ground rules (UGRs) 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. Consultant and author Steve Simpson believes “it is the UGRs that drive people’s behavior in organizations.”

Unwritten ground rules, 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.

Unwritten ground rules are important for communicators to understand

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. If we become aware of issues caused by significant and frequent gaps between formal organizational values/culture and actual workplace comments and behavior, we need to raise this issue with the HR manager and then top management. Otherwise, a big chunk of internal communication is ineffective. Comms pros need to note the strategy below in raising these discussions.

Research points to big gap between actual and desired values and behaviors

Many organizations communicate the desired direction and desired values/behaviors to their employees, but often there is a gap between good intentions and reality. Research 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 behavior – 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.

Unwritten ground rules stay despite formal organizational policies

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. This happened to me when I was working in-house on a consulting contract for a few months.

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 -Trust

Value Statement – Our organization is open and accountable
Actual unwritten ground rule – We keep things close to our chest and only reveal information on a ‘need-to-know’ basis.

 Mission Topic – Respect

Value Statement – We treat each other with respect at all times. We are courteous and value other opinions.
Actual unwritten ground rule – When bosses attend meetings, people don’t say their real opinions.

Mission Topic – Teamwork

Value Statement – We work together to achieve positive outcomes and respect the collaborative democratic decision-making process.
Actual unwritten ground rule – “What the boss says, goes.”

Mission Topic – Responsiveness

Value Statement – We respond to issues promptly and encourage customer involvement.
Actual unwritten ground rule – The speed with which we respond to issues depends on who is complaining

Mission Topic – Service

Value Statement – We exist to serve our customers and seek to continually improve all we do.
Actual unwritten ground rule – 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.

Unwritten ground rules strategy

In his book, Cracking the Corporate Culture Code, Steve Simpson advocates a seven-step strategy for harnessing the positive values of UGRs:

  1. Ensure that management and staff understand the concept of UGRs.
  2. Get an external perspective from someone from another organization that has already addressed their UGRs to fully understand the issues that exist.
  3. Identify existing UGRs – by using the “around here” statements outlined above.
  4. Create positive UGRs – involve your organization in converting existing and developing new UGRs that support positive behavior.
  5. Ensure your managers “walk the talk” – demonstrating their personal commitment and behaving in a way that supports the positive UGRs.
  6. Put UGRs on management agendas and include them as a standing agenda item for business meetings.
  7. 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.

Starting a new job – all those new UGRs to understand!

Identify a ‘cultural mentor’

When you start a new job you are faced with a whole minefield of UGRs! Your new job may also be an internal shift within your organization, or it might even be the arrival of a new boss in your existing department. In a 2020 Harvard Business Review article, marketing strategist Dorie Clark suggests how to solve the problem raised by these changes. Clark says:

 “Just as you would do when you start an overseas posting, look for a cultural mentor who can help you interpret and navigate the unstated codes of your new environment. Look for someone who has a deep understanding of the corporate terrain, wants you to succeed, and doesn’t have an apparent political agenda that could cloud their perspective or cause them to give you biased information. Possibilities might include former company employees that you know through social or professional circles, or respected colleagues in other offices or departments.”

Even if the change is only having a new boss arrive in your current department, you can still develop a relationship with someone from your boss’s previous area who can give you some guidance about the unwritten guide rules your new boss brings with them.

Control your narrative

Also, if you are finding your new corporate culture is extremely different, you are very likely to trip up at some point. You might say something undiplomatic at a meeting that will be perceived as way too harsh, or your team will complain you didn’t consult them sufficiently, or the working group will move too slowly because they didn’t realize you were serious about the project being a priority.

Fit the culture (different UGRs) in the new environment

Of course, some of this may just be a matter of personality quirks and leadership style – but these get magnified when you enter a culture that tends to operate quite differently to what you expect. If you’ve come from a fast-moving environment and act accordingly, you run the risk of being branded as too aggressive, and if your last job emphasized consensus and collective agreement, you may be labelled as too soft to get results in your new job.

If you feel you’re being misunderstood or that your intentions aren’t coming through clearly, point out the cultural difference, which your new colleagues probably notice. “I’m sorry if my feedback came across as too harsh,” you could say. “That was a common way of expressing things at my last company, but I realize it may not be the most effective strategy here. I’m going to take note of that for the future.”

As long as you don’t act like you’re complaining, or negatively comparing your new workplace to the old one, people will not judge you prematurely. The key is to observe the new workplace subtleties, like UGRs, carefully and ensure you don’t repeat your mistakes.

We often assume that if we’re successful at one company, we will automatically succeed in another. But even small cultural differences can add up and create a cascade of misunderstanding, damaging your ability to succeed at your new job. By following these strategies, you can pick up on subtle cultural codes faster and ensure a smoother transition.

Steve Simpson’s book, Cracking the Corporate Culture Code, provides more detail about unwritten ground rules. You can also visit his website.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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