Tag Archives: Understand Your Environment

Look At Your Organization Through New Eyes. Every Day.


Get Out Your ‘Spidey-Sense’

Remember when you were new in your organization? Remember the things you noticed? Remember the things you thought? You noticed what worked and what didn’t seem to be working. You notice who had the power. You noticed who seemed to be moving up (and you probably had a clue as to why). You noticed who annoyed you and who you liked.

Then you settled in. And you started to forget. You got used to things. You became friends with people. Your own prejudices and stereotypes kicked in and overrode your initial impressions. And you went on autopilot.

So you are missing a lot of what is going on in the organization. You are missing the nuances and the undercurrents that can help prepare you for what is going on. Your “Spidey-sense” needs to be turned on at all times.

Here are some times to make sure you’ve got your NEW EYES open:

  • Every time a new executive joins the organization. What ripples are caused when new people join the organization? We tend to assume that they will adjust to the organization (and to an extent they will), but the organization will change around them too. Think of new people as boulders in the white water. The water speed and directions/currents will change when the boulders are moved.
  • Every time the organization is impacted in the market. If you’re not watching the “market” that includes your company, you’re driving down the street toward a dam that has opened up across the street. You will be overtaken by circumstances beyond your control. And you won’t be ready.
  • Every time a new project starts or stops. People are impacted when projects start or stop. Opportunities open up. Companies downsize. This does not necessarily apply only to the people on the project. Sometimes those people are rewarded for the effort they have put into the success of the project—by being moved into your job or into your boss’ job.
  • Every time cost cutting starts. When organizations are cutting costs, they re-look at EVERYTHING. They will at some point look at what value you are adding to the organization. Don’t assume that it is obvious. Use New Eyes to see what they see. In fact, do it before the cost cutting starts. Make sure you’re adding value and that the powers that be know that you are adding value. Don’t assume that it is obvious.
  • Every time the organization gets stretched or starts to grow. Opportunities abound during stretch and growth times. Use NEW EYES to see where the opportunity is. Figure out how to be the one who others think of for those opportunities. Don’t just sit in your day job and let the growth happen around you—be ready and be available for it.
  • When you get a new boss. This is possibly the most important time to be looking through your NEW EYES. Your boss doesn’t know what has gone before. S/he only knows what exists when s/he gets there. If there are problems in the organization, then it is likely that you are perceived (by someone who has just arrived) as part of that problem. Look for ways that you can help your new boss immediately. Look for what your boss wants to accomplish and figure out how to help him/her do it. QUICKLY.
  • When you get new co-workers. Much the same things apply to new colleagues as new bosses. It is a great opportunity to see the organization through new perspectives. What is right and what is wrong about your organization. What can YOU do to help change things that need to be changed? How can you help your new colleagues be successful?
  • When someone important gets fired. In fact when anyone gets fired. Firings should be wake-up calls for everyone. Why did s/he get fired? Did s/he run afoul of someone? Did s/he break a rule? An unwritten rule? Fail to get results? Look at yourself. With NEW EYES.

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Filed under Bosses, Career Development, Personal Change, Unwritten Rules

The Water You Swim In

Culture is Like Water to a FishUnderstanding Your Organization’s Culture

Organization culture for people is like water is for fish.  It is there.  It is critical to how the organization works.  It shapes people’s interactions.  It guides how work gets done, what is considered success, who is powerful and who is not.  It is also invisible.  People are not consciously aware of it.  It is probably the single most important thing in the organization, and most people know nothing about it.

If you want to be successful in an organization, one of the first things you should do is work on understanding the culture.   You will be able to use the culture to help you be effective.  You will be able to avoid getting into trouble by understanding the rules of engagement, power and territory.  You will be able to use the informal networks to grease your requests and deliverables.

What is Organizational Culture?

The culture is the set of assumptions, beliefs, customs, behaviors, rites, rituals, behaviors and values that exist within an organization.  These sometimes come directly from the founder (think Steve Jobs), then get influenced by subsequent leaders (think John Scully, then Steve Jobs).  The culture is sometimes a creation of combined organization cultures, or an organization culture that has been transplanted into another geographic region—Apple in China, Honda in the US.  The culture is never JUST what the company says it is.  In 2000, Enron’s stated values were:

  • Respect We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here.
  •  Integrity We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, then we won’t do it.
  •  Communication We have an obligation to communicate. Here, we take the time to talk with one another and to listen. We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people.
  • Excellence We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.

Obviously, there was more at work in the culture than what they said.  There were other things driving behavior.  The culture rewarded conformity and punished dissent.  Individualism was valued over other behaviors (Jeff Skilling’s favorite book was Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene.)  There was a belief that the people who worked at Enron were the “best and the brightest.”  Eighty hour work weeks were the norm.  There was a “rank and yank” performance system.  Cumulatively, these things and lots of others, describe the Enron culture.

Disney has a very different culture.  Google has a differently culture.  Organization cultures are the (organizational) DNA combination of all of kinds of inputs.

How Can You Figure Out Your Organization’s Culture?

 Answers to the following questions can help you begin to understand the culture:

  • Who founded the company and what were his/her beliefs?  About   the organization?  About the way things should be?
  • Is the founder viewed as a hero?  A villain?
  • Is the founder still with the company?
  • If not, what impact have subsequent leaders had?
  • Are any of them considered saviors?  Heros?  Villians?
  • What are the stories that are told about the company?
  • What kind of person(s) seem(s) to be favored?
  • What behaviors are accepted?  Regulated? Discouraged?
  • How does communication flow?
  • What parts of the organization’s history are important?
  • What traumas have happened to the company?  Are there psychic scars from those traumas?  Do people still talk about them years later?  Have behavioral norms been put in place to avoid the same trauma in the future?
  • What is the dress code?  How rigidly is it enforced?
  • What are the social norms?  Do peoples socialize together?  Have  lunch?  Spend time outside of work? Are there cliques?  Does inclusion/exclusion impact your career?
  • Who speaks in meetings?
  • What is the power structure? How do people break into the power structure? What kind of people are in the power structure?
  • What are the performance evaluation norms?
  • How is information shared/not shared?  Who controls it?

Once you’ve thought about these, identify the ways in which you can use/benefit from how the culture works.  Focus specifically on:

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Filed under Career Development, Executive Development, Organization Culture, Uncategorized

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