Every team has those “unwritten rules” of either etiquette or office behavior; items that people assumes everyone knows and follows. Some are business etiquette like responding to email within twenty-four hours, some are culture specific like the amount of non-work related side conversations considered appropriate, and some are team specific like always asking to see the package for the food Dan offers you. These rules become so ingrained in us that when new people break them, they can be at minimal embarrassing and more often a cause for disciplinary action. This is always compounded when you hire a fresh-out (someone straight out of college or high school who has never been in the corporate world) or compose international teams.
The problem with these rules is that, by their nature, people are expected to know them without having ever been told. Many are only noticed once they are broken and the rule breaker may not be always aware that they caused an issue. This is especially true for cultural rules where the results may be perceived as a slight and taken personally. When this happens the employee, who broke the rules, may feel resentment for not being made aware of a potential infraction or that they are being targeted unfairly.
So, what can a team do about this? How do you train a fresh-out to fit into the corporate world and in your team? There are three important things a team and company can do:
- Write down employee expectations, make sure they are explicit, and train everyone on them.
- Structure the discipline process to be more educative and less punitive; leaving punitive responses to repeat offenders.
- Create a team or company philosophy that can be used to help guide and remind people of important behaviors.
The first step is to write it all down. That seems obvious but these wouldn’t be “unwritten rules” if they were already written somewhere. It is important to note that just writing these expectations down is not the end it. If you write them down, lock them away, and only refer back when there is a problem, you haven’t solved the heart of the issue; that employees get frustrated, angry, and resentful being held to unknown standards. This should be a living document that is updated, re-evaluated, and referenced on an active and routine basis. Are the older expectations still relevant? Has there been a cultural shift at the office? Has the team changed and are adopting some new norms?
Employees should review these expectations every-so-often and management should discuss them with each new employee; giving people the opportunity to ask questions, work through examples, review implications of non-conformance, and show their understanding. The idea is that people can start to internalize the expectations and have a reasonable ability to adhere to them.
It is true that you cannot write every cultural norm down, but the big ones that have caused issues in the past should be so that they can be discussed and kept in mind. With that, if someone stumbles into a new expectation it should be considered for inclusion and discussed with the team(s). Again, the goal is to have a good discussion, reach an understanding with the team(s), and promote adherence.
Which brings us to the second point on non-conformance and infractions. If someone breaks an unwritten rule it is unfair to punish them for it. My favorite twisted saying for this is, “Ignorance of the law is an offence punishable by death.” I mentioned earlier, punitive responses to someone who fell into breaking a social norm can breed resentment, stress, and dissatisfaction. People receive educative correction of “I want to help you become better” more favorably than “you messed up.” It is my philosophy, in general, that teams and companies should reserve punitive measures for the most egregious employee problems of heavily repeat offenders (those who know the rules but choose not to follow them) and generally illegal activities (e.g. harassment, theft, threats to people’s safety). These go beyond the topic of unwritten rules to company liability. And that is kind-of the point, forgetting to respond to an email within twenty-four hours is very different than threatening to shoot up the place.
And that brings us to the final point on team and company philosophies. I think a good philosophy can be used like a mantra to help remind people of the standards. I’ve seen companies do an entire word cloud with snappy saying to remind people of that cloud, I’ve seen companies make a sentence that is often way too long for anyone to remember, and more pithy statements like “Quality above all else” or similar. For my teams I have settled on three statements that I’ve collected over the years, that I think are easy to remind people of our team environment:
- Open, honest, and clear communication to help foster teamwork, good discussions, and collaboration.
- A key trait in teamwork is to let go of your ego. Everyone should feel comfortable and safe stating that they don't know, other's opinions should be encouraged, and we should not be afraid to admit failure. Our goal is to make a great product together, not alone.
- Assume positive intent! Most of the time people's mistakes, concerns, or feedback comes from wanting to do or see better, not from any malice.
With all of this in place, the drama and problem on your teams should decrease and people will hopefully be happier. On my teams it has opened more dialog and allowed people to engage as a team, getting quickly past that “forming, storming, norming, performing” stages of Tuckman’s stages of group development. No matter how junior a new employee is they feel comfortable asking for help, no matter how senior a developer is they feel comfortable admitting they don’t know, and we all work together to find the right answers.