By Graham Oxley, Project Manager – Digital Engagement
Whether at work or at home, we often hear about unwritten rules. These are the norms, behaviours or actions that people are expected to follow or do even though they are not written down anywhere in a formal rule book or culture document. We encounter these unwritten rules every day and get annoyed when people don’t follow them – think of every time you have muttered under your breath when the person in front of you doesn’t hold the door for you. But beyond merely being frustrating, in certain contexts, such as corporate culture and sports, unwritten rules have the power to create a vastly different reality to the intended rhetoric of written rules. Often, we see that once a written rule is created, various factors go to work to change, reinforce or undermine it, until the unwritten rules that have been created hold more power than the written rule that they have emerged around.
One place where unwritten rules are in abundance is sports, and this has been making the news recently. Firstly, there has been fierce debate in cricket this week around Ravi Ashwin, the Indian all-rounder playing for Kings XI Punjab, who performed a ‘Mankad’ dismissal on England batsman Jos Buttler in an Indian Premier League match against the Rajasthan Royals. This is allowed in the official rulebook, but a large number of ex-players and pundits have condemned him for contravening ‘the Spirit of Cricket’, which is a set of unwritten rules that many cricketers subscribe to. On the same day, on the other side of the world in Miami, Nick Kyrgios, an Australian tennis player, served underhand in beating Dusan Lajovic. The reaction towards this has been more balanced; Judy Murray labelled him a genius afterwards, but during the game a spectator ran onto the court to remonstrate with him for the tactics. These are two examples in just the last week, which show that unwritten rules are rife across the sports world; footballers put the ball out of play when the opposition has an injured player, rugby league players do not contest scrums and baseball has so many unwritten rules that people lose track.
The question that follows here is: how do unwritten rules relate to my business? Organisations operate as complex systems of (1) formal, interdependent processes – such as pay, performance and training; and (2) informal practices and behaviours operating under the radar, such as ad hoc flexibility in work schedules, or the prioritisation of presence over performance. The latter are the ‘unwritten rules of the game’ and they exert a strong influence over employee behaviours and have a significant impact on the success or failure of any new intervention implemented. Here is an example: your organisation may have set up a generous parental leave policy aimed at improving engagement amongst families. However, if the culture and leadership of your organisation signals, through non-verbal or verbal cues, that anyone who takes up their full parental leave will face a delay in getting a promotion or pay rise, the reality of that decision looks very different to what the written rhetoric intended.
Clarity on the unwritten rules of the game that are shaping behaviour is therefore key before launching any new initiative. This exercise allows businesses to understand how any intervention will influence and be influenced by other factors at play, giving an early indication of any unintended consequences that you need to consider and plan for.
So how do we find out the unwritten rules of the game? The answer lies in engaging your employees in an open dialogue. Taking the time to truly listen to your employees to understand their diverse motivators, enablers and triggers will pave the way forward. We have worked with a number of clients on this challenge; you can see a snapshot of who we have worked with here.
I would be happy to have a further discussion about how you can go about uncovering the unwritten rules of the game and ensuring that your organisations’ reality is truly representative of the rhetoric. Just drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When we meet people, we often think that we can tell a lot about them by the occupation they have. “So, what do you do?” is probably the most common icebreaker I hear, as our work is often regarded as shorthand for explaining to people who we are.[i] But our work identity is not our only identity.
No one person has a single identity; we all have talents, interests, relationships with others, causes we’re passionate about and worldviews that help to make us who we are. In order to embrace our authentic selves throughout our careers, the question researchers are now asking is how to balance the multiple identities that we have. But, after exploring agile people strategies here at Hot Spots Movement, what I think we should be asking is how to integrate them.[ii]
We are increasingly moving away from the 9-5, from which people can clock off and assume their out-of-office identity. With technology enabling a 24/7 culture and people demanding flexible, agile ways of working, our work and our personal lives are becoming more and more interwoven. Instead of allowing our work to monopolise our time and become the core part of our identity (something psychologists call “work-role centrality”) or viewing our work as something that begins and ends and is entirely separate from other aspects of our lives, integrating our identities enables us to be our authentic selves at all times, living and working according to our values and passions.[iii]
The rise in thinking about work-life integration focuses on scheduling time to disconnect and break away from our desks at multiple points throughout the day to ensure that we are maintaining our vitality and sustaining our productivity. Perhaps this can be as easy as using our lunch breaks more effectively, for example, to go to the gym, attend a lecture or catch up on that tv episode you missed. It might be leaving work early to make sure you have dinner with your family or friends and making up that time at home later on.
To fully integrate our work-life identities, we should consider how to reignite or reinforce our connection with work. Instead of perceiving work as something we have to switch off from, how can we make work more meaningful and more aligned with our other identities?
Firstly, we can seek out new projects. When current work isn’t stimulating, we should find new ways to feed our intellectual curiosity. Seeking new challenges and a greater variety within our working day may help us to gain a whole new perspective on what work means to us and what really holds our interest. Similarly, pursuing new skills that we’re passionate about mastering or gain new knowledge on a topic we’ve always been interested in can raise both our engagement and sense of purpose at work.[iv]
Expanding our networks and meeting diverse people can introduce us not only to potential new friends but to potential new futures for ourselves, as these connections may be able to offer advice and guidance as we forge new career paths. Attending external conferences, lectures and events, or reaching out to colleagues from different internal functions are simple ways to integrate our work with our other interests.
To stop your work identity from becoming your only identity, find ways to integrate and align your work with your passions, interests and talents. To talk more about our identities at work, drop me an email at email@example.com
[i] Al Gini, ‘Work, Identity and Self: How We Are Formed by the Work We Do’ (1998).
This week, Republican candidate Paul Ryan was confirmed as the new Speaker of the US House of Representatives. However, his acceptance of the post was on the condition that he would travel less than previous speakers in order to preserve valuable time with his family. Of course this type of demand from such a high-profile man garnered a lot of press attention, as notions of family time and flexible working remain rooted in the ‘working mum’ domain in many countries, industries and companies. It’s still (sadly) rare to hear as may working dads negotiating school drop offs with busy work schedules, as working mums. So, will Mr. Ryan’s bold statement be a catalyst for change?
My work at the Future of Work Research Consortium highlights time and again the importance of role models when it comes to shifting an organisation’s culture. No matter how many policies and practices HR may devise around flexible working and work/life balance, if those at the top aren’t using them, then those attempting to climb the ladder will take this as a signal that they shouldn’t either. Having leaders simply avail of flexible working options isn’t enough either. They need to use the options in a way that is visible to the rest of the organisation. One of the most interesting comments I heard recently from leaders at a Professional Services firm was that they were working flexibly and assumed that others in their teams were doing so as well. However, this was not the reality. Their teams were often unaware that they were taking this approach as the leaders weren’t communicating about it and hence the signal that this kind of autonomy in working style was accepted and, lo and behold, normal was not being received. Mr. Ryan’s very visible commitment to work/life balance will hopefully act as the cue to his team that making time for family is not a barrier to success.
That is the implication for his own team, but what about the wider American and Global audience? What impact can this action have on a larger scale? These are tougher questions. While Mr. Ryan has the bargaining power to make such demands, the average American worker does not. Moreover, he has previously voted against providing paid family leave for federal employees, which has made him an unlikely advocate for a cultural shift in favour of work/life balance. It’s promising to see signs of his change in views on this and we will have to expect that as a matter of course, he will now work for these rights to be extended broadly so that it is both socially acceptable and financially viable for all dads – and not just those in powerful political positions – to exercise the same choices.
So, can Paul Ryan move the needle on work/life balance? My view is that he can certainly change one important aspect of the dialogue. We need more male leaders to demonstrate their desire to be actively involved in their children’s upbringing and highlight the challenges they face in juggling responsibilities – and of course the flexibility they avail of in order to strike a balance. Making this a conversation that managers have with all employees, rather than a request working mums submit to HR, will be a significant step in achieving work/life balance and gender parity.