Real rules need to be explicit

Oct 01 2014 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Today marks the beginning of the Major League Baseball playoffs (non-American readers, dont leave, theres a point here, and you dont need to understand the game to get it. I promise!) One of the reasons I find the game both intriguing and infuriating is that it has a lot of unwritten rules. Tradition, culture and 140 years of playing the game dictate behavior.

You run out a single, even if you know youre out. Its okay to try and scare an opposing batter and brush him back if he hit a home run off you last time. Grabbing your crotch in public is somehow acceptable

These rules arent written anywhere. Everyone knows them, theyre just accepted and mostly are adhered to. About once a year, though, someone violates an unwritten rule. Sportscasters, bartenders and everybody else go insane and argue for two days and its all in good fun.

The same thing (without the fun and with fewer bartenders) happens on teams all the time. We have unwritten rules about how things work. When someone transgresses, we usually say well, everyone knows that, or they should have known.

Teamwork is a fragile dynamic at the best of times. Remote teams are even more at risk because theres less day to day, informal communication and its harder to develop the shorthand that makes work easier. Is it a safe assumption that people, particularly those new to the team, would automatically know the unspoken rules: you dont call Mary at home on the weekend, you dont ever go to John for help with that, even though its his job description, youre better off asking Rajesh and everyone just knows that.

But heres the question. If the rules arent written down, or at least expressly stated, is it fair to think that people should just know anything? Does everyone really know what you know, or think about things the same way you do? How do you know?

Its difficult to hold people to a standard that doesnt technically exist. You, and they, are making a set of assumptions about standards of work, resource availability and codes of behavior. Thats great, until there is a disconnect and something goes wrong.

As a team, its a good idea to determine the behaviors you really want and expect from each other and make them explicit. How often should you answer email a day? Whats the proper response time to a voicemail? Is it really okay to put your phone on mute while on conference calls, or is that just something that happens and nobodys said anything about it?

Once something is explicit, you can coach to it. Theyre either adhering to the rules (and you can praise and reward them for that. You knew that, right?) or draw their attention to whats not up to standard (because now theres an actual standard that theyre not meeting).

Its fun to argue over the unwritten rules of sports. Its a much bigger problem when your team dynamics are left implicit, instead of explicit.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He's passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today's virtual communication technology. His books include The Long-Distance Team - Designing Your Team for Everyone's Success. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.