Most organisations have policies and procedures. If you’re not sure what they are, a quick glance at the employee handbook will inform you of the rules as well as the expectations for codes of behaviour and ethics. The rule book provides you with a road map for navigating the system.
But almost immediately, you will notice that these may be formal rules for how the company operates, but not everyone follows them. In fact, the more attention you pay to the workplace dynamics, the more you will realise that there are many unwritten rules that no one tells you about. As a result, you are forced to discover them through trial and error and in the process you can find yourself in a sensitive situation. It’s up to you to figure out what all the rules are at your company in order to be successful.
Here are seven rules you need to pay attention to in order to survive and thrive in the workplace:
1. Written rule: It’s a meritocracy.
Unwritten rule: Getting promoted is not just about who does the best job.
Politics and loyalty and favours play a large part in the decision-making process. At best, companies place 80% of their decision to promote based on performance and 20% on relationships and politics; more likely it’s 50/50. What does it take to get promoted or hired in your company? Learn the rules in order to get ahead.
2. Written rule: We offer equal opportunity regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, sexual preference, or age.
Unwritten rule: If you are a white male, you likely get compensated more and have the best chance of getting promoted.
Look at the organizational chart of your company. Is there an equal representation of gender in leadership? How diverse is the pipeline? Does it reflect the written or unwritten rule? Many organisations pay lip service to equal opportunity, but what is the reality? How committed is your organisation to this rule?
3. Written rule: The organizational chart shows who has the power to make decisions.
Unwritten rule: Titles don’t necessarily indicate power.
If you observe the dynamics, you will recognise that decisions are rarely made by one person. Many people influence decisions and sometimes politics trumps titles. Don’t assume that someone’s position means they have power. Look carefully to see who makes the decisions and who influences those decisions. These people need to be on your radar screen if you want to get ahead.
4. Written rule: The rules are the same for everyone.
Unwritten rule: There is a different set of rules for different people in different departments.
Your boss may have a different set of rules than someone with the same title in another department. If you’ve been told, “This is the way we do it in this department,” that’s a clue! You can’t assume that everyone follows the same procedures. They may, in fact, have their own unwritten rules. It’s important therefore to observe and tread carefully or you can stumble and break a rule that’s sacred to someone.
Speak up, or your ideas will never be heard.
5. Written rule: It’s a consensus-driven culture.
Unwritten rule: You can voice your opinion, but no one at the top may listen.
Are people rewarded in your company for speaking up and sharing new ideas? Is open communication encouraged? Does the workspace encourage interaction? Are all the senior executive offices located on a separate floor? Pay close attention to the way decisions are made and notice the communication chain. Does it go top down? Do ideas from the bottom ever reach the top and get implemented? Figure out who actually listens and build relationships with the people who seek your input and can get things done.
6. Written rule: Resources are allocated fairly based on need.
Unwritten rule: Whoever barks the loudest gets the resources.
Ever notice that some people get a free pass and others trudge along and have to follow every detail of the process in order to get approval, and sometimes they still don’t get it? Some people are clearly in favour and have greater access to resources and opportunities. What does it take to get access to the resources you need to be successful? You assume that if you follow the procedure for requesting support that your request will be granted. But some people go to the top of the list regardless of the nature of their project. Why? Often these people call in favours or have political influence that trumps the fairness. Learn the rules for what it takes to get resources and make it part of your game plan. Are there certain relationships you need to nurture?
7. Written rule: We are a team-oriented company.
Unwritten rule: Everyone is out for themselves.
What happened to the team? Once you settle into a new company or new department, you realise that the team concept doesn’t really exist. You can’t trust anyone. The team exists on paper, but the reality is that the team doesn’t function as a team. It’s a group of individuals forced to work together who have no idea how to collaborate. Whenever you are evaluating a new position with a company, you want to assess the culture and determine if that culture aligns with your values. What type of culture will best position you for success?
The current work environment is complex and competitive. If you assume that following the written rules alone will help you be successful, you are vulnerable to potential landmines. People will hold you accountable for knowing all the rules even though they are never openly discussed. Use your keen observation and listening skills to learn the written and unwritten rules in order to navigate the reality of your company.
Bonnie Marcus is an executive coach, international speaker, writer, and award-winning entrepreneur. Marcus runs the online platform Women’s Success Coaching.
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