Unspoken Rule

rules of the game

baseball code by Chris Philpot

Unspoken rues are behavioral constraints imposed in organizations or societies that are not voiced or written down. They usually exist in unspoken and unwritten format because they form a part of the logical argument or course of action implied by tacit assumptions. Examples include unwritten and unofficial organizational hierarchies, organizational culture, and acceptable behavioral norms governing interactions between organizational members.

For example, the captain of a ship is always expected to be the last to evacuate it in a disaster. Or, as Vince Waldron wrote, ‘A pet, once named, instantly becomes an inseparable member of the family.’

In the workplace, unspoken rules can have a significant impact on one’s job satisfaction, advancement opportunities, and career trajectory. For example, research conducted in the US by the Level Playing Field Institute and the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut in 2003 revealed that 36% of white women, 37% of women of color, and 33% of men of color identified the fact that only certain people are part of important social groups at work as the greatest obstacle to fairness in their workplaces. In sports, the Rangers, a Scottish football club had an unwritten rule of not signing any player who was openly Catholic until 1989. Yorkshire County Cricket Club also historically had an unwritten rule that cricketers could only play for them if they were born within the historical county boundaries of Yorkshire.

Since the mid-1980s, a set of widely applied concepts used to reveal the hidden inner workings of organizations and society have commonly been referred to as ‘unwritten rules.’ Devised by management consultant Peter Scott-Morgan (and popularized by a best-selling business book in 1994 called ‘The Unwritten Rules of the Game’), these concepts have been used as the theoretical framework for a variety of academic research projects across different countries.

International management consultancy Arthur D. Little has revealed that from the mid-1990s conducting an Unwritten Rules assignment became something of a rite of passage among its 3000 consultants – on the theory that ‘once you’ve fed [the sensitive results] back to a CEO … and survived … then you can do anything.’ There are numerous accounts of organizations that have applied Unwritten Rules methodologies, such as Citibank, Daimler-Benz, and Hewlett-Packard. The former-head of Process Review at British Petroleum published a paper in 1992 that said his corporation’s ‘search for best practice in the consulting world led to my meeting Peter Scott-Morgan and learning of his insights into understanding – and changing – the Unwritten Rules of the Game.’ He then describes how BP tested, and became convinced of, the validity of Scott-Morgan’s technique and went on to apply it in several major operating centers.

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