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, don’t leave, there’s a point here, and you don’t 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 you’re out. It’s 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 aren’t written anywhere. Everyone knows them, they’re 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 it’s 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 there’s less day to day, informal communication and it’s 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 don’t call Mary at home on the weekend, you don’t ever go to John for help with that, even though it’s his job description, you’re better off asking Rajesh and everyone just knows that.

But here’s the question. If the rules aren’t 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?

It’s difficult to hold people to a standard that doesn’t technically exist. You, and they, are making a set of assumptions about standards of work, resource availability and codes of behavior. That’s great, until there is a disconnect and something goes wrong.

As a team, it’s 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? What’s 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 nobody’s said anything about it?

Once something is explicit, you can coach to it. They’re either adhering to the rules (and you can praise and reward them for that. You knew that, right?) or draw their attention to what’s not up to standard (because now there’s an actual standard that they’re not meeting).

It’s fun to argue over the unwritten rules of sports. It’s 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

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.