What The Heck Are Unwritten Rules?

Four Problems

There are four problems to being able to understand the unwritten rules in your organizations.  The first is that you believe you know the rules (these are your beliefs about how organizations are supposed to work) and that creates a blind spot for the unwritten (unspoken/invisible) rules that you don’t know.  The second problem is that the unwritten rules keep changing.  As new leaders come in, as the organization gets purchased or reorganized, the unwritten rules can change.  The third problem is that the “unwritten rules” aren’t the same from organization to organization.  So, when you change organizations (even subunits within your current organization), you need to reassess what the unwritten rules are.  The fourth is probably the biggest problem.  It is that the unwritten rules are communicated through informal networks, and if you’re not a member, it is hard for you to find out about them.  They aren’t necessarily talked about, but people who are new learn to emulate the rules from the people in their networks.

Unwritten Rules in Organizations

What Are the Unwritten Rules?

The unwritten rules are the “way things work” in the organization.  People who know these rules aren’t necessarily able to articulate them, because it is likely that they “picked” them up without someone clearly telling them.  These are things like how you’re supposed to dress, how you’re supposed to interact with others, how late you’re supposed to work, how and with whom you go to lunch, and a whole host of other things.  You are evaluated by the organization by how well you follow these rules, even though no one has ever told you what they are.

The Research

Catalyst is an organization founded in 1962 to provide research and support for the inclusion of women in business.  They do significant research on many work related topics.  They have researched unwritten rules in organizations and the impact that they have  on career success. In research done in 2008, The Unwritten Rules, What You Don’t Know Can Hurt Your Career, they identified common areas of unwritten rules that exist  in many organizations:

  • Communication and Feedback–speaking up/being assertive/challenging (or in some organizations-not challenging)
  • Performance and Results —exceeding performance agreement is expected
  • Career Planning –you’re expected to have a plan and you’re expected to push for it
  • Seeking Visibility — sometimes this is an expectation, not considered “brown-nosing”
  • Building Relationships –joining and building networks, establishing trade routes of informal relationships
  • Increasing Face Time –just because you do a good job it isn’t enough, you need to build the relationship, and be present
  • Working Long Hours
  • Clearly Communicating a Willingness to Work Many Hours

Unwritten Rules for Promotion

Looking at “unwritten rules” associated with getting promoted, they identified:

  • Network and build relationships within and outside the organization
  • Find ways to become visible
  • Play politics and lobby for yourself and your work
  • Be a team player, work well with others
  • Communicate effectively and ask for lots of feedback
  • “Fit in” with the organizational culture
  • Perform well, produce results
  • Be knowledgeable, competent
  • Find a mentor, coach, sponsor
  • Be energetic, work a lot
  • Work long hours
  • Be strategic, savvy
  • Develop a good career plan
  • Be communal

How Do You Figure Out the Unwritten Rules?

In 2010, Catalyst followed up with a second study, The Unwritten Rules, Why Doing a Good Job Might Not Be Enough, asking how respondents had learned the unwritten rules.  The top responses were:

  • Learned through observation
  • Learned through trial and error
  • Learned through mentoring and feedback
  • Learned through previous work experience

So, What Does This All Mean?

Get a Mentor.

Just because you don’t know them, it doesn’t mean there aren’t unwritten rules.  The research shows that one of the best ways to learn them is to have a mentor who can help you.    How?  Find someone in your organization who you think knows what’s going on and ask him/her if s/he will be willing to be your mentor.  Most people would be flattered by the request.  Don’t get hurt feelings if the answer is no, go find someone else.  Have a couple of conversations–over coffee is good–to see if the chemistry is right.  Ask him/her about his/her career/success/path/learnings.  People are almost always willing to talk about this.  Listen to the stories looking for evidence of the unwritten rules.  It’s ok to ask about the unwritten rules, but I wouldn’t do it in the first conversation.


Start watching people closely.  Especially the powerful and successful ones.  Pretend you’re in a foreign country trying to figure out what’s going on.  What do they do?  How do they do it?  How do the bosses react?  Do you have the same reactions?  If not, how are yours different?  What are you missing?  What values seem to be at play?  Practice a little with your own behaviors.  Flex your style a little.  What reactions do you get?

Ask for Feedback

Ask people about how they think you fit in.  Ask them about your behaviors against what they perceive as the unwritten rules.  (It is highly likely that a peer would welcome this conversation because he would be interested in the same feedback.)  Take the lists of “unwritten” rules above and ask for feedback.  How did the responses fit with what you think?


Did you cringe at anything above?  At the rules as listed?  At the thought of asking someone to be a mentor?  At the thought of asking for feedback?  At the thought that there are mysterious unwritten rules?  If so, then chances are you need to think about it some more.  That’s ok.  Go ask some people you trust.  See what they think.


Filed under Career Development, Career Goals, Communication, Executive Development, Success, Unwritten Rules

5 responses to “What The Heck Are Unwritten Rules?

  1. Bill

    Another excellent introspective tip. Thanks Jo

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