The Unwritten Rules Leaders Must Know

In life there are written and unwritten rules. For example, consider the nearest highway to you right now. What is the written rule for the speed limit? (I realize this may be a challenging question you!)

OK, now let me ask you this: how fast can you really go without getting a ticket?

Certainly the answer can vary by country, for there are plenty of nations around the world where there are not stated speed limits let alone enforcement. On one trip outside of Nairobi I’m not even sure we were on a road! But for the sake of this illustration, let’s assume a locale with speed limits and police who issue fines for violating those limits.

In your experience, how far can you press down the accelerator without being pulled over?

In the United States, an unwritten rule of driving is “Go with the flow of traffic.” If the written speed limit is 65 miles per hour but the flow of traffic is 80, you’re not likely to be fined. It’s an unwritten rule.

Another unwritten rule is “5 you’re alive, 9 you’re mine!” If you’re only going 5 miles per hour over the speed limit you’re probably safe, regardless of the flow of traffic. If you’re 9 or more miles per hour over the limit, your risk of getting a ticket goes way up.

(For the record, don’t send me any e-mails if you get pulled over for speeding! Showing the officer this post will not help!)

Rules of the Road (On the Water)

Here’s another example. I’m a hack sailor, which means I talk about sailing more than I do it. There are written and unwritten rules on the water as well. The written rule, at least in the United States, is that a boat under power is supposed to give way to a boat under sail. It’s the responsibility of the powerboat to adjust their course.

But what do you think the unwritten rule might be? Let’s say I’m in a little sailboat off the shores of Lake Michigan, the largest body of water near my home in Chicago. Let’s further say that as I’m cruising along I’m heading straight for a giant oil tanker that’s a half mile away but steaming my direction. What should I do? Should I pick up the radio and suggest that the captain of the tanker give way?

Absolutely not! The unwritten rule of sailing is that the biggest one wins! It’s about tonnage! I drop the radio and change my heading!

The Rules at Work

This phenomenon can be seen at work as well. The written rule might be “We follow this process.” The unwritten rule might be “Get it done on time and we’re all good!”

The written rule might be “You need this executive’s sign-off to proceed.” The unwritten rule could be, “She really listens to these two people. Get their buy-in and it’s a done deal.”

This concept of written and unwritten rules is critical to understand because the unwritten rules always win. Where the gap between them is biggest, things feel political because we say one thing but reward the other. If you’re in a leadership role, consider this as a challenge: where are the gaps between the written and unwritten rules in our organization? What can we do to close those gaps?

How This Applies to Projects

The PMBOK® Guide lays out globally accepted standards for how to manage projects. Perhaps your organization has binders of templates and methodologies, providing guidance on how you should document and navigate your projects. Those are the written rules.

But let me be clear: you also have unwritten rules. Start watching and you’ll discover them lurking just below the surface like a shark we thought was just a shadow.

Learn the written rules. They are important to understand. But you must take the time to identify and understand the unwritten rules in your organization. Because they always win.

What are some of the unwritten rules you’ve observed in your career?

NOTE: I was first introduced to the idea of written and unwritten rules by a book published back in 1994. If you can find a copy, consider reading Peter Scott-Morgan’s book The Unwritten Rules of the Game: Master Them, Shatter Them, and Break Through the Barriers to Organizational Change.

“PMBOK” is a trademark of the Project Management Institute, Inc. which is registered in the United States and other nations.

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