Barnaby would like to thank Holger Koehler of Monitor Group for his contributions to this column. If you are like most people, you can probably remember your first days on the job. Looking forward to a new challenge and working with a new group of people, you walked through the halls looking for clues, wondering to yourself what is the culture and how do things really work here? Before long, you may have noticed some posters or slogans on the walls - a mission statement, a list of corporate values, maybe even a strategy map - and received some training on organizational policies and procedures. But after some time passed, it dawned on you that some other, more powerful force was at play: a set of unwritten rules dictated by the internal politics of the organization that really governed people’s behavior.

As Peter Scott-Morgan described in his 1994 book Unwritten Rules of the Game, these rules exist in every organization. They are not good or bad per se, but can allow for - or prevent - organizational change. In some cases, they can work against the best wishes of management without them even being aware of their existence. For example, consider the CEO who set out to build a high-performance culture through measurement and transparency and was later surprised to learn that his program was doomed to fail because of the company’s unwritten rule that those who report bad news are associated with failure and rarely get promoted. Not until he was able to understand the existence of the rule and address it constructively - by recognizing and rewarding honesty and problem-solving ability - could he bring about changes in behavior surrounding measurement and accountability.

As this example illustrates, the changes desired by leaders are often in conflict with their organization’s unwritten rules. Sometimes these conflicts are represented in the form of negative side effects (in the example, people were inclined to “game” measures and targets and report inaccurate results) that must be understood and managed constructively. The challenge is in uncovering them and identifying ways to address them constructively.

Analyze Unwritten Rules

Leaders and managers interested in identifying their own organization’s unwritten rules can turn to a framework called motivators, enablers and triggers (MET) that has proven to be effective and easily applied in a relatively short period of time. The idea is to identify motivators (What is important to me?), enablers (Who is important to me in order to get what is important to me?) and triggers (What do I need to do in order to get what is important to me?) through a series of probing interviews with middle management that explore the issues around MET. Using open-ended questions, such as, What is important to you? Why is that? and What motivates you?, one can systematically uncover the issues around a topic of importance to the executive team.

The chief technology officer (CTO) of a large automotive manufacturer used the MET methodology to better understand why the central R&D organization was not supporting her globalization initiative and how that could be changed. With a few individual exceptions, engaging employees in the center to embrace globalization had been a two-year push exercise for her despite the strong support she received from corporate management and the fact that it was the only viable strategic option in a no-growth market.

After conducting a handful of interviews with middle managers in R&D, it became apparent that: 1) people were motivated by a high degree of autonomy, recognition and respect from their peers, and a stable and secure work environment that offered a favorable work-life balance; 2) they saw R&D management and peers - not company executives or corporate management - as enablers to these motivators; and 3) the key triggers to getting what they wanted had to do with the perceived value of their efforts and the support infrastructure provided by the organization.

Synthesizing findings from more than a dozen interviews, two major unwritten rules began to emerge from the analysis of MET: employees thought it best to “stay out of global projects” and “focus on doing what pleases your immediate boss.” The resulting behavior was one of passive compliance.

In the just-mentioned case, unwritten rules analysis provided senior management with critical insights into why the R&D globalization effort was not embraced by employees. The CTO responded by improving communication with the R&D staff, creating a new R&D position (research integrator) with distinct performance metrics and a career path, and introducing a new award to recognize collaboration and integration of partner work. Finally, new communication tools were implemented to enable communication with distant places from home - thus obviating the need for employees to relocate.

As valuable as the MET tool can be, it is important to point out that this information can be a dangerous tool in the wrong hands. For example, if employees suspect their leaders are using the information to manipulate them, it can lead to cynicism and outright sabotage of a change program. However, if leaders can make subtle changes in their employees’ work environment and the way they communicate, many unwanted behaviors can be eliminated, and the organization can finally achieve its goals.

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