Unwritten Rules: Does Your Shadow Organization Promote or Prevent Engagement?
“Let us agree here today to adopt among ourselves a simple and unwritten rule. We will not rise to criticize someone else’s idea unless we are prepared to offer an alternative idea of our own.” Marco Rubio
In each organization there are, in reality, at least two cultures–one that we speak about and one that we don’t. Top executives often talk about their company’s vision, values and organization charts, as well as offer publicity, advertising and policy manuals about what is most important. With carefully penned key messages, headlines and stories, the “visible” organization is especially clear and apparent to outsiders and the external public.
What lies beneath the visible organization is the “shadow” organization. Frequently invisible to outsiders and often filled with “unwritten rules,” this version of the organization is usually more powerful than the first. These rules or norms represent the informal day-to-day behavior carried on in the name of tradition, habit and expectation; it consists of what people actually do rather than what the corporate materials profess. For example, when a company sponsors workshops to encourage leaders to “speak up,” take risks and innovate, and then criticizes, punishes or even fires leaders who make mistakes, the unwritten rule says, “Don’t put your neck out unless you’re 100% certain your idea will work.”
The most successful organizations, and those that employees label as “Great Places to Work,” have congruence between written and unwritten rules. Since employees learn from what they live rather than from what they are taught, new employees experience culture shock when the work climate is different than what they expected. So when an employee is told one thing and experiences another, they experience what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, which often leads to dissatisfaction and low engagement.
Consider how you would feel working in a company with the following unwritten rules:
1. Do your job and just your job.
2. Committed employees are available 24/7.
3. Don’t ask “Why;” it’s disrespectful.
4. If you want to get ahead, don’t ask for help.
5. Don’t disagree with someone higher than you.
Most new employees rapidly assimilate into the web of existing structures because they’re rewarded by their peers and even by their supervisors for conforming to the prevailing patterns. However, when norms are not “employee-friendly,” individuals begin to experience discontent. Strong cultures quickly work to show employees the error of their ways and bring them back in line. Organizations help dissatisfied individuals see that they don’t fit in and are often subtly encouraged to find a job with a better fit.
Unwritten rules have a greater influence than perhaps any other single factor on organizational effectiveness and talent retention. Decision-making, standards of performance, training, innovation, and supervision are all affected either positively or negatively by the norms that surround and permeate the organization.
If you are interested in identifying some of your company’s norms (unwritten rules) about innovation and change, download our Normative Profile Activity.
For more information on how to identify and reinforce the norms most conducive to organization effectiveness, please contact BeckyR@InnolectInc.com.