The Invisible Rules of Teams

In an organization, not all rules are written down. When you first start a job, everything is all rosy. They invite you in, give you the spiel on how things work, maybe, just maybe, you get some on-boarding or a bit of training. Then you are off and left mostly on your own to get started. If you are really lucky, you may get a peer or a co-worker to help you along in those first few weeks until you get settled. 

There are some things that you kind of have to learn on your own. Often they run counter to what you where told, or you may learn about them unexpectedly. These are the invisible rules of engagement. Rules that aren’t written down and rarely discussed. However, they can be a major force for how an organization functions. 

These are the practices in the organization or the behaviors of people in situations that kind of keeping you guessing at first. You have to figure them out on your own. Others, unwritten rules can show up quickly. For example, in many agencies they say they have set hours from 10 to 6 for example, but if you leave the door before 7, you quickly find out it’s frowned upon. 

Sometimes these rules emerge because of office politics. Perhaps the unspoken angst between competing agency founders who have some strange power playing going on. In this case, the unwritten rules emerged due to the nature of the staff trying to please both founders, or when working with them individually. 

The invisible Rules of Engagement are a product of you organization’s cultural environment, it’s ability to trust and handle risk. (Rosenfield 2005) They can effect people’s communication style, decision making and the quality of shared information. 

As an agency leader, there is a lot that you can do to encourage innovation, creativity and team work by working on your style of communicating with the team, allowing your teams and leadership teams autonomy and support. There are less unwritten rules when an agency maintains a high level of transparency. 

 As a project leader, you can do the same. Laying all the cards on the table. Or, as a team member you can work on controlling your behavior so you don’t pick up the bad habits of others. As a team, you can all work as one unit, supporting each other, instead of playing power games.

On an individual level, it can be very frustrating when the agency displays behavior that is incongruent with its perceived values. Unwritten rules of engagement can also change over time, and through lack of communication, it can be inevitable that you may find yourself being side-swipped. These are the side-effect results of when written rules, how we are suppose to act, and the unwritten rules, the ways people actually do act.

Sometimes, you may ask yourself, “What the hell just happened here?” To be honest, there is a good chance you may never know the real underlying nature, dynamics or reasoning surrounding an invisible rules. It can seem hurtful, because it can be perceived as a breach of etiquette or a disrespectful way of interacting. 

 In reality, what anyone individual is experiencing is only part of the underlying situation. Certainly there is no excuse for bad behavior. Is is important to look at unwritten rules from a holistic viewpoint. Like many unwritten rules or organizational behavior, what you as an individual is seeing is only the tip of a much larger iceberg. How you perceive the situation is going to be very different than how your team mate, peer, manager, or firm owner is going to view the situation.

Edward Schien, has identified a set of forces that influence “the way things get done.” and groups them as either behaviors or motivation for those behaviors (Stein, 2010)

  • Regular behaviors, when people interact, such as language, customs, traditions and rituals.
  • Group norms and values
  • Formal organizational principals that guide employee action.
  • Rules of the game — the unwritten rules
  • Competencies taught from one person to another
  • Habits, ways of thinking and mental models used that guide perceptions and language
  • Shared meaning, the understandings that are created as group members interact with each other.

Understanding how a firm works and how they get things done can be complicated and an intermingled web of connections. The bigger the organization, the more complex and less you will see of the big patterns of how the organization operates. This is why smaller teams tend to be more nimble. 

However, even in small teams, an individuals motivation behind their behaviors can be complex, how they feel about the team, you, the company, the people they work the closest with, their home life, their social life, their career path, sense of ownership, how they feel they are rewarded and if they are rewarded in the right way can all effect the development or direction of their behaviors.

Unwritten rules are the intended or unintended consequences of a gap in social understanding. 

In reacting to or redirecting unwritten rule of engagement, we need to look at them from a social communication perspective. Unwritten rules are usually situational and people based. They are not absolute rules for every situation.

Not everyone in the organization will feel the same way or have the same level of intensity around every unwritten rule. In the big scheme of things, not everyone will give an unwritten rule the same level of importance. For example, some people won’t care about working till 7 p.m., when the written rule is 6, there will be a range of emotions about the situation.

When an unwritten rule effects you on a personal level, it doesn’t have to ruin your day. Gauge your relationships, unwritten rules are not always set in stone, and often come about in the absence of real rule setting. Speak up, be honest about the engagement in the proper setting. Know when to approach the situation, people will connect with you differently in private then they do in public when approaching these types of change. 

 People follow unwritten rules of engagement because it often makes them feel like they are “fitting in,” rather than making waves. At the end of the day, you are still responsible for your own set of behaviors. Unwritten rules can be just as important to the change process as documented ways of working. One of the reasons process change can fail is because it conflicts with a strong institutionalized unwritten rule. 

As an individual you may not have the political capital to make these types of changes on your own. However, we can focus on strategies that can make these unwritten rules no longer hold the meaning that they have. 

These strategies can include;

Taking the point of view of others to analyze why the unwritten rule exists, to explore alternative ways of working.

  • Draw other team members, peers to get a multi-disciplinary perspective. Explore new ways of working that involve team members on both sides of the situation.
  • Look to make a connection with the person who is advocating for the unwritten rule. Look for places to agree, to connect or support them. If the rule came about because of trust issues, look for alternate ways of building trust. If the rule came about because of a communication issue, look for alternate ways of communicating.
  • Work with others to learn why the rule came about, gain new insights to build alternative ways of working.

Why should we care about uncovering these rules?

 Unwritten rules can make or break a cohesive working environment. If we don’t uncover them, talk about them and take positive action they can be the death of any project management implementation. 

Negative rules can make people fail to “own” their actions. This includes decisions we make or don’t make, actions we take or don’t take, and the gracious acceptance of the consequences of our decisions and actions. (Zaval 2011)As project managers, we not only hold ourselves accountable to the successful outcome of a project, but to a level of conduct that goes beyond mandatory standards of conduct — aspirational standards. (Zaval 2011)