Reading the unwritten rules

Remember your first day at your new job? You do not know all the rules yet and are trying to understand the way of working and collaborating in your new company. There are a lot of ways to analyze company culture. I tend to lean heavily on corporate anthropology for this. I think all change experts know that culture is a critical aspect of being successful in reaching your goals. You have the formal culture and the informal culture. The informal culture is usually not perfectly aligned with the formal culture. This may lead to problems when you want to achieve change. 

The culture iceberg with visible and invisible culture

How to recognize the unwritten rules

You can recognize a conflict between written and unwritten rules when:

  • Employees feel demotivated. They may feel it does not matter what they do. Management has said what they feel is important, but employees are not rewarded for different behavior nor punished. So why care if it does not matter to management what you do?
  • Employees feel trapped or even paranoid. They may feel that they cannot win. Management has said what they feel is important, but it is impossible to reach the goals or to reach the goals without breaking certain (written or unwritten) rules.
  • Employees feel powerless. They do not see how they can influence a good outcome. This can lead to a lot of cynicism.

Very few employees love to stand out because of their resistence to change. It will cost them a lot energy. So what drives them to do so anyway? To figure this out you need to look at the company culture.

Analyzing company culture

When you want to find out what the unwritten rules are you need to look for the following things:

  • Enablers: Who has power to decide over rewarding employees, writing procedures and formal rules? 
  • Triggers/Levers: What are employees rewarded or punished for? These are about performance metrics and reviews, evaluations, forms, goals, strategy, vision, bonuses, promotions and so on. 
  • Motivators: What truly motivates employees? You can look at the pyramid of Maslow to get a sense of what motivates people.

I always look at a couple of things when analyzing culture. You can see these in the image below. When you look at things like parking space, language, success and failure you will get your clues as to enablers, triggers and motivators.

analyze culture by perks language behavior and values

You do not need to go look for all the unwritten rules, this is impossible. But when you have an assignment to change the company results, solve a problem or change the company culture you need to look for the unwritten rules that may be counter proudctive. This means you need to have a clearly defined assignment. You can get a clear idea of the unwritten rules by interviewing a number of people, experienced and new. I always try to make an interview both appreciative and probing (those two are not mutually exclusive).

When you want to change culture you need to be honest about it. Be sure to give people influence in shaping the change. You will need to be realistic in setting expectations. Culture change is hard work and seldom a straight road towards success. You can design the change to meet certain needs in structure, attention, goal setting and so on. But changing culture is a shared responsibility, not just your personal responsibiliy. You will need to empower people to change with the company and be their coach and mentor.


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