“If you cannot say it or write it down, then it cannot be a rule.” It is funny how often that John and I have been discussing this concept the last couple of days; we keep coming up with examples. Our discussion started because I was recalling an incident that took place several years ago. While involved in a project, I had been told that a particular action I had taken was incorrect. I asked for clarification and I was told that I had not followed the rules; it was true, my action was in direct conflict with what I was told was a “rule.” When I asked about the source of the guidance, it was explained to me that it was an unspoken rule and could not be written down. That made complete sense to me because I thought that it was not only silly and capricious but, I suspected, illegal.
Then this weekend I was listening to an NPR segment about how five professional sports teams are being sued by members of their cheerleading squads who desire to be paid the minimum wage or higher. The cheerleaders state that they have to abide by rules, written and unwritten, that would indicate that they are employees. This should be an interesting case.
Another example. As we were departing an airplane one day, a man pushed to get in front of people who were seated in rows ahead of him. A woman (who was not traveling with him) said very loudly “we wait until those ahead of us have departed.” The man replied, just as loudly, “Oh, I didn’t know that that was a rule.” To which the woman replied, “You should know better.” Was she quoting a rule or a custom or her own personal standard?
I have found that there are the “unwritten rules” that are either just silly or in direct conflict with established guidelines. Think about the “politically correct” rules you find challenging. Is there a moral imperative involved? And, have we inadvertently or intentionally established rules that we don’t really want to admit exist? Are our expectations clear to those around us or do others have to guess what the rules are?
Then there are some rules that someone has forgotten to write down. Some years ago, John and I were in a car accident. We plowed right into the side of a car much bigger than ours (their car won!). As people arrived to see how bad the accident was, a spectator asked me “Why didn’t you stop at the corner?” I replied, “There’s no stop sign on the corner.” Her response, “We all KNOW to stop there!” I shook my head and walked away. Failure to document that rule had caused significant harm.
So, what is a leader to do about “unwritten rules?” Well, like the discussion on the airplane, there are behaviors that are considered polite and are commonly accepted in our society. Sometimes, it is helpful to explain these to an employee. And, sometimes, it really is none of our business. It’s a tough issue and you can get in trouble fast when you try to write rules on the fly.
What rules do we have in our home, our place of work, our church, our marriage, our life that should be stated out loud and written down or away with? And, are those rules or traditions or ways to be courteous or our own prejudices?
I’m very interested in your thoughts. More from me next time.