Write down your unwritten rules

Published by Peter on

Unwritten rules are causing one of my newer clients to struggle with a really difficult partnership.

These two people used to get along great, but recently all their interactions have devolved into conflict. They regularly have to work together, and neither one can “fire” the other.

The conflict is never about just one particular issue. It’s as if conflict itself has become the defining part of their relationship… the inevitable outcome of any extended interaction.

When I talked with my client last week, they were about to go into a three-day group retreat where they would have to interact frequently and publicly with this partner.

My client seemed resigned to whatever might happen. I detected a sense of anticipatory regret for the inevitable breakdown, even though the words they said to me sounded hopeful in nature.

So I asked them about their plan for avoiding conflict at the retreat. Specially, I asked them about their rules of engagement.

I pointed out that whether they were written down or not, such rules existed. And if they weren’t written down, then maybe that was the problem: Perhaps these two people were working from two different unwritten rulebooks.

Every culture has unwritten rules

When I was working at one of my past corporate employers, a consultant ran a workshop with our whole group of about 100 employees.

I remember one question she asked in particular:

“What are the unwritten rules of this workplace?”

It hit most of us sideways. Unwritten rules? Nah, there weren’t any unwritten rules. Were there?

A sign tacked to a tree that says "fire risk, please do not take lanterns into your tent"... some unwritten rules shouldn't have to be written
Some unwritten rules really shouldn’t need to be written down. There’s probably a story behind this one.

It didn’t take long for people to start listing them out. Even the simplest things like “meetings start on time” and “you always answer the phone when the boss calls” started to open our eyes.

Every culture has unwritten rules. When those rules feel comfortable to you, you don’t even notice them. But when you’re out of sync with them, they can really throw you off.

Imagine coming from a culture where every topic requires a meeting and every meeting starts bang on time, then going into a culture where people don’t even schedule meetings… they just pop into your office whenever they have something to talk about. You’d think they were all insane and wildly insensitive in this sociopathic chaos.

Or imagine coming from an egalitarian culture into a strictly hierarchical culture. Or from a micromanaging environment into a space of empowering creative ownership. Disorienting!

Every one of these cultures has its own set of unwritten rules, and once you internalize that ruleset, it can be hard to understand how it drives your own behavior.

You can become unaware of your own role in whatever dysfunction you’re involved with.

Unwritten rules can feed the blame game

When you’re unaware of your own role in a dysfunctional situation, you tend to blame everyone and everything else for all the problems.

While I have not met every human who ever existed, and I don’t have scientifically generated data to extrapolate from, I feel confident saying that this is pretty universal human behavior.

One of the few memorable lessons I took from my training as a boy scout leader was this: “The boys you’re leading really only want two things: They want to know what the rules are, and they want to know the rules will be enforced.”

This is also generally true with grownups.

We all want to know what the rules are, and we all want to know that the rules will be applied the same way for all people.

Ambiguous or inconsistently enforced rules cause confusion and discord.

Clear rules make maintaining order and courtesy a straightforward matter of education and enforcement. Everyone can at least agree what the system is, whether or not they agree with it.

But unwritten rules aren’t officially the same for all people. So we each import our own version of them. We each bring our own ideas of how people are supposed to act and interact in all kinds of situations.

When other people break your unwritten rules, you don’t blame yourself for having incorrect rules. You blame the other people for their incorrect behavior.

And very likely, they are simultaneously blaming you for your incorrect rules or incorrect behavior.

A notepad where the top page says "WTF - from the desk of" followed by a big handwritten question mark. This is how unwritten rules make people feel.
How it feels when there are a lot of unwritten rules, and everyone brings their own.

Write down the unwritten rules

My client had to stop and think when I asked them about their rules of engagement for this group retreat.

This was a new perspective for them on a situation that had become a predictable rut.

It was a question they had never thought to ask.

We didn’t solve my client’s fundamental problem in last week’s session, and I suspect this is just the first step on a very long exploration of how to make this partnership functional again.

But I’m hopeful this insight helped them get through the retreat. Possibly even start the turnaround that they’ve said they want.

What are your unwritten rules?

Whenever you find yourself in conflict, or you think someone else’s behavior is all wrong, ask yourself what unwritten rules you’re bringing to the situation.

Explore where those rules might come from, and how the other person might have their own unwritten rules different from yours.

Even when you seem to come from the same background and culture, other aspects from your experience and other current influences in your life may impose unwritten rules you don’t even know you have.

You may find that when you think of it this way, you can identify the handful of smaller points that are at the root of a conflict which seems much larger than it really is. Or, you may ultimately find there are truly irreconcilable differences.

Either way, using the “unwritten rules” approach may bring clarity to a conflict or discomfort that you’ve been unable to get a clear view of.

And getting a clearer view is always a step toward a more correct outcome.

I can help.

I work with top executives and middle managers to improve their leadership skills, their workplace culture, and the effectiveness of their teams. Also, I help individuals identify and achieve their personal goals. Would you like to become more aware, be more effective, be more empowered, and feel fully prepared for your next steps?

Let’s talk.

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Categories: Conflict


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