Fresh Milk from Contented Cows

June 2011
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Featured Article: Unwritten Rules 

By Richard Hadden   



Visiting a new country reminds me a lot of being in a new job. There are so many rules to learn. The written, well-documented ones are hard enough to keep up with. But watch out for the pages and pages of "unwritten rules" - things you need to know, but may never be told. Until it's too late.


Last month, I had the privilege of visiting six foreign countries - seven if you include the Vatican - on a trip that was part vacation, part speaking engagement. No, the speaking engagement was not in the Vatican. They have that covered. I spoke at two conferences in Singapore.


While my passport is pretty well worn, most of the places I visited on this trip, specifically Greece, Turkey, Dubai, and Singapore, were new to me.  


And in each case, I couldn't help feeling, "Hmmm. How does this work here? How do you do this here?", "this" being regular everyday things like ordering coffee from a walkup counter, being seated at a restaurant, hailing a taxi, paying the restaurant bill, crossing the street, keeping the lights on in the hotel room (store your keycard in the mystery slot near the door) what to wear, how to greet people, how to use public toilets and public transportation (which in a couple of these places seemed to be indistinguishable from each other), and tipping - tipping the taxi driver, the bellman, the waiter, and even the toilet attendant. The list goes on. There's nothing right nor wrong with these customs, nothing better nor worse. It's just the way it's done wherever you happen to be.


And then there's airport security! Which countries do and do not have hangups about shoes, liquids, and laptops? TSA - take a trip. Pay attention!


How do we learn these unwritten rules in organizations? Pretty much the same way we learn them when visiting far-off lands. If we're lucky, there will be someone who cares enough to tell us. We supplement that with observation, research, and simply asking.


I noticed in Brussels, that without exception, in the absence of cross-walk signals, drivers yield, unanimously, to pedestrians crossing an intersection. Expecting the same behavior in Istanbul will result in blood and broken bones.


I ordered Pad Thai from a stand in a food court in Singapore, and, when I asked what they had to drink, the guy looked at me like I was American, and politely directed me to a separate vendor who carried beverages. This was a food stand. No beverages on the menu. What are you thinking? When I gave a Singaporean cabbie a couple extra dollars over the metered fare, he looked at me like I didn't know my numbers.


At work, not knowing the unwritten rules can have embarrassing, to career limiting consequences. Good leaders help new people navigate these treacherous waters. Aside from the written dress code, how do we really dress for success around here? How do we address those who live north of us on the org chart? In meetings, do we speak out, or wait to be recognized? Does the organization place a premium on doing the right things, or doing things right? Which works better here - challenging things outright, or taking a more considered approach?


Here are some thoughts (I won't call them rules) on, well, rules:


  • When it comes to rules, fewer is generally better. I didn't say "none is better". Fewer is better.
  • As we wrote in Chapter 21 of Contented Cows Moove Faster, you should have 2 types of rules. Type 1 - a very few inviolable cardinal rules. Failure to comply renders one ineligible for membership in the organization.  

Good leaders are crystal clear about these, and consistent in their enforcement. No one should even step foot on the premises on day one without having received clear, written documentation about Type 1 rules.  


The immigration landing card you receive when you arrive in Singapore has, in bright red, all capital letters, in an area all its own, "DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW". Any questions? If you have more than a few of these Type 1 rules, you're either in a really weird business, you're hiring the wrong people, or you're a bureaucracy run amok.

  • Type 2, covering just about everything else, is more what this article is about. Sometimes, they're de facto policies. More often, they're culture elements that have evolved, for better or worse, as the organization has learned what seems to work best. They're often the little things that can trip us up, unnecessarily. Good leaders are unfailingly skilled both at recognizing that these rules exist, and in schooling their followers as to how to abide by them, and when, and how, to challenge them.
  • Although not the case with Type 1 rules, discretion is a must for Type 2. If you're a leader interested in having the best performing team you can, you'll mold, groom, and develop your followers with respect to these "unwritten" rules, rather than punishing them if they don't always get them right.
  • Finally, leaders in healthy organizations regularly examine, and question, the usefulness of their rules, especially those not written down anywhere. Is the "rule" helping our people do their best work? Does it build value for our customers? If you're not sure, listen to both of these constituencies. They'll tell you.


Get a chance for a free book.Got "unwritten rules"? Send us a quick email - or a comment on Facebook - and tell us about an unwritten rule you've seen, in your current or a former job. We'll take all the entries, and on June 30, we'll have a drawing for a complimentary copy of Rebooting Leadership. To email - either reply to this email, or send a new email to, but MAKE THE SUBJECT LINE say "Rules", or something similar. Otherwise, the email might go to the wrong place. For Facebook, go to, and "like" us, if you haven't already, then post a comment on our wall. We'll publish a list of the best answers in next month's Fresh Milk, but we WON'T identify any names or organizations.

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Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden
Contented Cow Partners, LLC