Be brave and bend unspoken rules

Be brave and bend unspoken rules

An organizational psychologist I once worked with told me pointedly, “Every organization is dysfunctional. You have to decide if you can work within that particular dysfunction.” What she didn’t say, but which I later understood, is this meant working within the games and unspoken rules that shape the dysfunction.

Now, there are people who innately know how to navigate organizational politics. They love the dynamic and unpredictable quality of it. They thrive in the games. And they shape the constantly changing rules.

If that’s not you, I get it. It wasn’t always me either.

But here’s the deal: if we’re not at least curious about the games, we’re at the mercy of them. And that’s a miserable way to manage a career – or accomplish much of anything.

Accept the game.

I recently coached a man named Will, who was frustrated with people less talented and not nearly as nice as he was being promoted before him. He resented his leaders and complained about it being unfair.

And he was right. It wasn’t fair.

But fair or not, the situation wasn’t going to change, so I asked him, “What do these promotions tells you about what’s important to your leaders?”

He tried for a moment to return to how unfair things were. But I pressed on, “You’re not being promoted, and they are. What does that tell you about what’s valued and rewarded?”

To his credit, he thought carefully about that. After a long pause, he admitted, “They’re more familiar with what my manager and her boss are looking for.”

What were they looking for? People who were easy to work with. People who could present well to senior leaders. In some ways, people with backgrounds more like his manager’s.

It wasn’t the game that was hurting him, it was his inability to see what the rules really were.

Learn the unspoken rules.

What Will had bumped into were unspoken rules. Rules that felt unfair. But focusing on fairness was side-lining the career of a thoughtful leader.

Once Will could see the rules, however, he could choose how he wanted to play the game. He began to lead differently, including asking his manager to help him develop in areas he knew were important to her. He also explained the rules to other people who complained about fairness.

And that willingness to expand conversations beyond fairness impressed everyone, eventually leading to him being promoted.

Create your own rules.

My client Jon also wanted a promotion – one that would be a two-level jump. But in his company, no one ever skipped levels for promotions. Ever. The unspoken rules were “pay your dues” and “don’t be too ambitious.” He could never tell anyone he wanted to accelerate his career this way.

When I asked Jon if he was ready for a two-level promotion, he replied calmly, “Yes.” And I believed him completely.

But unspoken rules are slippery things. They work on our subconscious (and self-esteem). For Jon, even though he knew he was ready for a bigger role, he wasn’t sure if he believed it was possible.

So we started there.

First, we acknowledged the unspoken rules, and then chose to ignore them. Next, we reframed ambition as something positive. In effect, Jon gave himself permission to be ambitious. Last, Jon created his own rule that a two-level promotion was possible for him. And he began to show up as if it was already true. Within a few months, he got a two-level promotion in another organization with a new set of rules.

Every organization has it’s own dysfunction and unspoken rules. No amount of complaining changes that. But as both Will and Jon both learned, it’s way more interesting to bend the rules than complain about them. Easier too.


Carolyn helps people find creative ways to bend unspoken rules.
Bend your own with our One-on-One Workshops and Burst Coaching.


Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
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