Monday, April 18, 2011

Servant Leadership Practice--Flush Out the Unwritten Rules

You might have written rules, policies or guidelines about how you want actions to be taken. Most likely, you've been making changes to those to drive some better results. Unfortunately, in many cases, nothing changes. We are creatures of habit. Also, there are unwritten rules creating obstacles towards improvement. Instead of uncovering those unwritten rules, we employ 4 strategies:

  • Wait until the current set of old-timers change and new blood comes in
  • Bring in consultants to ram through the change
  • Look for a crisis or quasi-crisis to stimulate change
  • Mandate a change the corporate culture, which never works (can't legislate morality, e.g.) without a lot of education and diligence
An unwritten rule could be one in which everyone knows that "to get to the top, job-hop". It creates a perpetual, short-term focused management team, making some changes and then moving on without really understanding the long-term effects or vision for the function or business unit. I worked in a company where the formal rule was that failure was tolerated, but a peer advised me never to admit to a mistake. Admitting a mistake was tantamount to boxing me into a category that meant no promotion, no lateral movement, and could mean an initiative to find an excuse for termination. (I survived despite his perception of the unwritten rule.) His belief that problems shouldn't be uncovered meant that his department was stymied in moving ahead. Lingering problems that only reduced results, without causing a shutdown, were left alone.

According to Peter Scott-Morgan, positive side-effects can be the result of unwritten rules too. You might discover that a common practice is that peers recognize the good work of another. It helps people fit in. To get the kudos, people were highly motivated to keep pace and look for the good in those around them.

Today, talk to a few people about how they think things "really work around here." Remember to ask open-ended questions and wait for an answer. Seek clarification. Listen empathetically.

For C12 and Truth@Work members, Jesus challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees about their written rules because they seemed to be most interested in the unwritten rules. We've often heard about the "spirit of the law" and it's with that in mind that much of Jesus' teaching seems to focus (adultery versus lust, murder versus hate, e.g.). Unfortunately, our intent in the written rules' spirit can be misinterpreted and undesirable behaviors are exhibited, like creating more rules (as I say, "poor systems create more systems" such as multiple layers of inspection). Not good to work on the Sabbath? Don't even light a fire so you're not tempted to cook. What is the intent of what you're trying to do and do people understand that, or do they understand something different about what's expected of them?

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