The perennial dilemma of the written rules and the unwritten norms

Recently I read a post on LinkedIn where an individualclaimed that his company has now been certified as one of the “Best Places to Work”. Very surprisingly, that post had no comments nor proclamations of excitement from anyone. I would have expected some of his colleagues to have commented on it, which would have validated his announcement. I was amused by the irony of this that a company has to get itself ‘certified’ as a best place to work. I understand that there are several such accreditations, but nonetheless, I would rather have a company been ‘perceived’ as a best place to work than ‘certified’ by people who have never worked there.

I have worked with some of the best companies in my corporate career spanning close to two decades and at key positions. I’ve visited several clients at their offices as well as multiple partners/vendors at theirs too.

I have experienced how the first few days are made easy when the new recruit is handed over the joining toolkit which contains all the rules, policies and guidelines to make his/her life in the organization easier. It also includes guidelines about filing reports, putting forth applications and solving problems, applying for leaves and submitting expenses. There are templates for everything that are available online on the company website which you just fill and submit.

Everyone around you is so warm and friendly, getting to know you as you make new friends and look wide eyed at everything that’s happening around. I remember being excited at my very first meeting in the office to which I was not supposed to be invited but I got myself to because I just wanted to see how a corporate meeting is conducted! With experience, I can certainly vouch that it is the unwritten norms that set any company apart and makes it a good (or best) company to work for, because all companies do have almost similar written rules that make up its basic constitution.

Written rules are basically just that- rules one should follow. They also come with the rider that when one doesn’t follow, they would have to face some disciplinary action. Written rules generally come out of norms that get hardened in a company. Like the HR policy document, the Standard Operating Procedures or the Standing Orders. Some rules are adopted because they are so mandated like the inclusivity policy, the gender equality policy or the sexual harassment at workplace policy which every company must adopt and follow without fail.

Then there are all those norms that actually form the warp and the waft of the company’s fabric. These are the unwritten rules that everyone knows but are rarely written. It is these unwritten norms that are the basis of the organization’s culture.

Organizational culture – the bedrock of everything good of a company

Francis Frie and Anne Morris, write in an article that the unwritten norms pick up where the employee handbook leaves off, adding that culture is what the people do when the CEO isn’t in office! A lot of what shapes the organization culture is derived from these unwritten norms, something that employees may not be mandated to do but they follow, nonetheless, out of sheer loyalty to the organization. Take for example punctuality. Most large organizations don’t have strict rules for senior managers to reach office. Those who take advantage of this unwritten norm, would habitually turn up late without any valid reason. Those who adhere to the ethical yardstick, will make it a point to reach on time, come what may.

Understanding Unwritten Norms

These are a set of behavior that people exhibit even when they are not required to. This behavior sets the tone for others to follow and gradually become the organization’s culture. On a rare occasion when Ratan Tata (Former Chairman of the Tata Group) appeared on a talk show, he was asked how he keeps his commitments at all times. Tata replied that he doesn’t make lose commitments and thinks before making one. So, he sticks to his word come what may. If he has said he will call, he will. If he tells you he will come, he will show up before time. Does he need to do this? Can’t he get away if he doesn’t? Well, no one is going to question Chairman Tata, but then that is the way he functions. There are no rules that govern his behavior, but he has his own set of norms that he sticks to. These norms go on to define his personality and earn him the deserved respect.

Same is the case with employees who can avail of stipulated leaves. Many companies offer extended leaves to its employees- vacations, sick leave, casual leave, earned leave and others. If an employee has plenty of leaves piled up unclaimed, he is well within his right to take those leaves and no one would ask him if he spent the days idling at home or at some urgent personal work. But there will be some who will claim the balance leaves at the end of the year and exhaust the leaves, while some will never think of that. They feel it’s not right to claim a leave just because he/she is entitled to, when there is no pressing reason for that. These are the unwritten norms. No one praises those who follow these norms, neither does anyone reprimand if someone doesn’t follow. But people around you are watching. And as famous baseball player and coach Yogi Berra famously said, you can observe a lot by just watching! Not using company vehicle or privileges for personal purposes even when no one will know, is a sign of following an unwritten rule.

Unwritten rules can also lead to adverse behaviors among employees when senior managers exhibit behavior that is against the written rule. That promotes abiding by the rule book and fosters mediocrity where people just want to survive till they find a better alternative.

Finding a balance between Written Rules and Unwritten Norms

Part of my job requires me to develop process and procedures. Some of the important questions that I always ask myself during this process is this: Will I be able to follow the process or the procedure that I’m rolling out? Will I find ways to maneuver it or constantly find reasons to not follow it?  There have been times when I’ve over complicated a process only to later realize it was not the right thing to do. There have also been times when I’ve made blunders in the flow of the process only to later realize there was a better way of doing it. So sum it up, as a leader, you need to develop written rules that your organization / teams will understand and follow, diligently.

As for the unwritten norms, be vigilant on what kind of barriers are you putting up – it could be several layers of unwanted meetings / reviewsor talking about open culture but not being available. I’ve often found that managers / supervisors / leaders that display utmost standards of ethics and transparency at all times result in positive and encouraging environment for high performance.

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