Discovering The Unwritten Rules Where You Work

Discovering The Unwritten Rules Where You Work

Unwritten Rules at Work - Bob & Nick Slater - Look Out Above!

“You can observe a lot by watching.” Yogi Berra

As part of its culture, every organization has its own system to know, work within, and maneuver around. Its unique “unwritten rules.” How do you discover the unwritten rules in your workplace? And does working remotely during COVID make it more difficult to do so?

Here are three suggestions to discover these unwritten rules:

1. Observe. Pay attention to how things get done, to where the power lies, and to the behaviors that lead to personal success. Who must approve or support something, regardless of what the organizational chart says? Who do people listen do, and respect? What will – and won’t  – the company spend money on? Which departments or teams are the most valued, where people are paid the most, and that produce the senior leaders of tomorrow? To advance past a certain point, must you have an MBA, law, or other degree or certification? What is – and isn’t – valued as an employee? Who are the rising stars, and what are they doing to get ahead? What can you learn from them? What behaviors of theirs could you start or stop doing now to contribute more?

2. Ask. When in doubt about any of the above, or anything else pertaining to the unwritten rules where you work, if observation is impossible or inconclusive find someone you trust and have a candid conversation. A manager, a mentor, a peer. Someone just above you in the organizational chart. Only you can know who that person is for the questions you have, and how candid you should be. You may find that by doing so you strengthen relationships that will be mutually beneficial as you advance in your company. You could ask someone who has recently left the company about his or her interpretation of the unwritten rules. They might be more candid than a current employee, although of course be skeptical of information gleaned from an ex-employee who departed on less-than-ideal terms.

Nick Slater CaricatureEven if you’re reluctant to ask, build relationships where people who have your best interests at heart tell you that have violated, or better still, warn before you violate, the unwritten rules where you work. As professional golfer Graeme McDowell observed, “There’s kind of an unwritten rule, ‘Don’t call your captain out at a Ryder Cup, win, lose, or draw, just don’t.'” The person who called out his captain was sitting right next to him at the post-match press conference!

3. Experiment. Depending on your personality, risk tolerance, and the matter at hand, you could simply act and see what happens. Doing so may give you great insight as to whether you acted in furtherance of – or in contradiction to – the unwritten rules where you work! As the maxim goes, better to ask forgiveness than permission. Don’t ask, just do it. Pick your spots carefully.

And yes, working remotely during COVID does make the discovery process more difficult since you are probably not in the office as much, or at all. You’re having more virtual meetings with multiple participants and fewer spontaneous, one-on-one, “water cooler” chats with colleagues. So observing is more challenging, and experimenting may be riskier since this reduced interaction likely means you’ll be less certain that you’re not crossing the line if you act without permission. But the unwritten rules are still there, and you can still discover them. Just being aware of the added challenge of doing so is a start. Observe as best you can from afar and rely more on asking.

Finally, whatever the unwritten rules, their presence does not alter the reality that your success – at your current place of employment, your next place of employment, or your own company  – depends on maximizing your contribution. In all but dysfunctional companies, expect rationality to ultimately prevail in terms of the right people being promoted. Meritocracy may seemingly be “out of whack” for a time, or at any given time, but ultimately exceptional performers will be recognized. The success of their managers, the survival of the company, and the jobs, income, and perks of those at the top depend upon advancing the best. Make sure that includes you, and you’ll go far.

For more tips on how to succeed in the workplace, check out Look Out Above! The Young Professional’s Guide to Success


Look Out Above! The Young Professional’s Guide to Success has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, HR Digest, CBS News, and more. It is available for purchase on Amazon, or by contacting the authors directly for discounted bulk orders.


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