Unwritten rules at the heart of conflict

2009

Today people often work with people who come from very different worlds than their own. This poses enormous challenges and creates workplaces ripe with misunderstandings, miscommunications and even conflict. At the core of these problems are the hidden unwritten rules that we carry around in our heads about how other people should behave and the proper way to do things.

Fifty years ago workplaces were extremely insular. People worked with people from their community who had similar cultural values and ways of doing things. They had gone to similar schools, the same church, and had friends in common. As a result everyone had the same unwritten rules floating around in their heads.

Workplaces have now changed dramatically. Women have entered the workplace in large numbers. People fluidly move across national borders and immigration has created extremely diverse workplaces in many parts of the world. Virtual teams consisting of members from around the globe have become common.

The result is that the workplace is now cluttered with people trying to work together who have different sets of unwritten rules.

Some unwritten rules originate with cultural differences. These are usually the easiest to identify and given the recent focus on diversity in many Western workplaces, people try to make allowances for what they believe are cultural differences. They think, "Oh, this person is speaking in a loud voice because they are an American."

However, even cultural differences can be difficult to discern. The unwritten rules in many cultures are extremely complex. For example, in the Japanese culture there are elaborate rules for where people sit in meetings based on their status.

In addition, people with different unwritten cultural rules often actively strive to blend into the predominant culture where they work by wearing the right clothes and cultivating the right accent. As part of this effort to fit in, they also try to adopt the predominant unwritten rules of their workplace. As a result, their fellow workers don't realize that they have a different set of unwritten rules.

Most of the unwritten rules that people follow, however, are much more subtle than ones based on culture. They are rules that people learned as children from their family. In addition people often modify these rules to create their own personal idiosyncratic rules. For example, their parents may have taught them to always meet deadlines. However, at some point they had a boss whose rule was: You can't trust employees to meet deadlines. Thus, you must set premature false deadlines. In response they modified their rule to be: Deadlines are just a suggestion about when I should complete work. I really have more time.

It is this hidden idiosyncratic nature of unwritten rules that makes them a key source of workplace misunderstandings and conflicts. Moreover, these rules are usually so ingrained in people's psyches that people, themselves, are not aware of them.

As a consequence, people don't realize that a problem they are having working with someone is due to their each following different unwritten rules. Instead they are quick to attribute the problem to malicious intent on the part of the other person. In turn the other person is likely to be equally intolerant. They don't understand why the other person is so upset with them and feel unfairly singled out for bad treatment.

While violations of people's unwritten rules frequently begin with small and insignificant incidents, they create little resentments which worm their way into future interactions between people. This creates a lack of trust and level of suspiciousness that can form the tinder for future more volatile and damaging misunderstandings and conflicts.

Consider the following example of how unwritten rules operate to create rifts between fellow workers: People from families with communitarian values frequently have an unwritten rule that you should take into consideration other people's feelings and be careful not to inconvenience them. If a person with these rules makes an appointment with someone, they will make every effort keep it regardless of the person's status and only cancel it if they are incapacitated.

Thus, a person with these rules finds it difficult to understand the behavior of someone whose unwritten rules make it OK to cancel appointments at the 11th hour if more advantageous opportunities arise or it is inconvenient to keep an appointment.

They see last minute cancellations as disrespectful and insulting. It makes them reluctant to make future appointments with a person who does this because they no longer trust them. Moreover, this lack of trust tends to generalize to the person's other behaviors.

Ferreting out these unwritten rules that people follow is a challenge for everyone in the workplace but it is important to remember that these hidden rules are always lurking in the background. Becoming aware of them can enhance working relationships and help organizations create more convivial and supportive workplaces.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.

Older Comments

Whilst I deal primarily with issues related to workplace bullying, I think that the concept and realities of unwritten ground rules cannot underestimated as a contributor to workplace conflict. It also appears that a failure to express expectations can lead to workplace conflict, and sometimes it is the unwritten ground rules that do not allow individuals to clarify misunderstandings about what is and what is not expected. Consequently, cultural norms, beliefs and even differences mean that no two employees will know how to express themselves without appearing to be in conflict with the person giving the instruction, advice or even a request.

Bernie Althofer Brisbane, Australia