Bitten by the unwritten

Is your company culture and leadership effectiveness being bitten by unwritten organisational rules
Posted on: Tuesday 02, May 2017
Category: Leadership Development

Are you being bitten by the unwritten rules in your company culture? Unwritten rules adversely impact a growth mindset and team performance. So, how do you change this?

Shut up - this is the way we do things around here

Remember the first day you worked in a new team or switched jobs? You went through an induction programme, and you had the staff handbook but, the moment you walked into the office or sat in the meeting room you sensed you've done something wrong?

Or, perhaps the room went quiet when you sat in that big chair at the head of the table? Was your cheery, 'Hiya' to the smartly dressed lady in the lift greeted with an icy stare? Did everyone in the meeting start emailing or making calls when you stood up to present?

Did your suggestion that 'we should just get out and knock on some doors' to generate new business meet with a chorus of, 'that’s not how we do things around here.'

At one level unwritten rules (and what happens when you break them) and unchallenged behaviours can be seen as just another part of our working lives and something about which to shrug your shoulders or, smile knowingly.

However, something fundamental is amiss when managers and staff trot out glib phrases such as, 'we have always done it like that' or, worse still when managers simply ignore or tolerate inappropriate conduct. They might say, 'Oh, that's just the way he/she is.' Or they simply blame the culture. But, these are often indicators of a fixed mindset.

Below are some typical examples of common unwritten rules that I have come across with leaders and teams I have facilitated. They generally emerge from fixed mindset influences. 

See if you recognise any in your own team or company? What unwritten rules can you add too?

Unwritten rules are an obstacle in building high performance teams

High performing teams work on growth mindset cultures

Without clear guidelines, growth values, shared objectives and openness in communications it is very easy for organisations and teams to become very negative, fearful and, ultimately, low-performance sets in.

The good news is that it is possible to shape, define and articulate a positive and forward-looking culture that replaces the 'that’s not how we do it here' mindset with a growth perspective instead. For example, 'that’s an interesting idea, how can we make it work.' Or, 'how can we learn from our mistakes and become even better.'

Remarkably, you can change unwritten rules and cultures; however, it is vital to invest in the services of a skilled leadership facilitator (see my services and book reference below for example) to help you to pinpoint the nub of such issues in your teams quickly. In this way, you can contribute to creating a high-performance team that is based on growth mindset principles instead. The key is to generate the conditions where smart people can uncover their strengths and work within the team to define a co-operative framework. Talents in the team get pooled in pursuit of a shared objective, and a can-do attitude.

Every team is different, so a top quality facilitator that can select the appropriate tools from their kit bag for your team makes all the difference.

For example, here are three practical approaches I use:

Appreciative Inquiry

An appreciative inquiry approach can build trust amongst team members and is very powerful. Simply put, it is an open discussion forum. The process facilitates people to safely reveal aspects of their lives that their colleagues didn't know about beforehand. It is a highly effective way of breaking down negative assumptions and creating trust bonds that lead to a growth mindset. Teams that I have worked with love this approach.

Click here for a resource on how to do this

Exposing and transforming unwritten rules

Very pertinently, running a specific 'transforming unwritten rules' workshop is an effective way of directly dealing with underlying culture and fixed mindset issues.

The first part of the exercise is to get the team to recognise and expose the unwritten rules they are subject to and their associated fixed mindset consequences. Then the next step is to explore what the positive intention of the rules might have been. It is then possible to explore how that could be achieved in a different, more positive and growth mindset way. I have used this approach many times with all sorts of teams and it always creates change.

Click here for a resource on how to transform unwritten rules

Developing a team charter

A team charter is basically a written covenant, agreement or code of conduct that the team work together to create. It can consist of a set of core values, habits and/or behaviours that the team are then willing to commit to, with each other and in their day-to-day work.

This helps teams to define a positive culture and commits the team to operate using qualities that lead to high performance and a growth mindset. The team charter process is a great way to enable both an initial change and building in resistance to those negative impulses in the future. This process can't be rushed through, it takes time.

Click here for a resource to help you

So, if you are being “bitten by the unwritten” in your team or business – relax. There are ways and means of breaking these unwritten rules. It is certainly possible to turn things around to create a high-performance team.

Also see my latest book (below) for more information on, Developing High-Performance Teams and how to deal with unwritten rules.

In a forthcoming blog, I will explore more about growth mindsets that lead to high performing teams.


Please stay in touch and sign up for my latest blogs (see the all brand-new signup feature below at end of this blog page)

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Updated and amended in June 2019

My services

Senior management coaching

I am a skilled leadership and team facilitator and development consultant. Please contact me today to discuss how you and your organisation can benefit from developing your team in emotional intelligence development or high performance team programmes. Call 07795 182 860 or email to arrange an informal discussion.

Sneak peek at my latest book

Click on the image above to head over to order it now. It's getting useful reviews too.

For other books in The Authority Guide Series, click on the following graphic:

See my website for more information on developing successful teams or for developing a team charter

Further reading and resources

Frederic Laloux and Ken Wilber - Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness

The New Leadership Paradigm. Barrett, Richard - Routledge 2013

(My first book - helps you create personal change and how to overcome your conditioning to reach your true authentic self.)

Download my detailed FREE questionnaire too. It measures where you are on an authenticity scale. It includes tips on advancing towards your authentic self. 

Other Leadership Blogs

Click here for my quirky Blog site

High Performance Teams Fact or Fantasy - Blog Post

Leadership - Who is Pulling Your Strings -Leadership development blog from Andrew Jenkins Leadership Development Consultant and Coach

Click here for Further blogs

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Graphics used in the article

All images in this blog are my own created by me.


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Unwritten rule to add to that list: I am the boss. I am always right and subordinates are always wrong ;)

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