Know the rules. Break THE RULES

You have seen them in your onboarding training and on the company website—the written rules of your company. But, what is not shared with you are the unwritten rules.

The unwritten rules are observed in the behaviors of your co-workers.

It is the unwritten rules that reflect reality.

For instance, consider these written rules and the observed behaviors in these examples:

  • We are a company that values diversity, but have no minorities on the board

  • We are a company where our employees come first, unless we have to cut employee bonuses to get our own

  • Our company supports work-life balance, unless we need you to work the weekend and respond to emails around the clock

Or at a departmental level

  • We are personally accountable for delivering on our commitments, but we point fingers daily

  • We are collaborative and transparent until we hide anything that might give someone else an advantage

  • We have zero tolerance for bullying behavior, but witness overt or passive aggressive forms of bullying daily

Here is the problem: If you take these issues to HR, or leadership, your expectation is that they will do something about it.

But they won’t.

It is the unwritten rule of “don’t rock the boat” or “that’s just the way it is around here”.

You, as a minion, are NOT going to change the rules.


These are the rules of the game.

Are they fair? No. Can they be unethical? Yes.

Can you quit and go somewhere else?

Of course.

But there will be other unwritten rules at your next company. Different unwritten rules. But there will always be unwritten rules observed in behaviors and these rules are fixed.

Efforts backfire for those who try to change the unwritten rules

People that don’t follow the unwritten rules, or challenge them, get “managed out” of the company. A precise term used by HR professionals.

After all, cronyism is the norm and HR is on their team.

The unwritten rules are the rules

But knowing the rules, gives you a leg up on the corporate conformists at your company.

You can take stock of what the rules are, so you don’t step on any landmines that can risk the progress of your work, and your career path.

What are the unwritten rules in your company?

Stop and think about the unwritten rules at your company. Even simple things like lunch. Do people go to lunch together? Do they bring in lunch and eat at their desks? Do people have working lunches? What are the observed behaviors?

Now, extend that way of thinking to other observed behaviors. Who whispers in the hall. Who are in the closed door meetings? Which people are friends? Which colleagues are enemies?

If you notice an admin always talking with your boss and certain peers, you can rest assured that anything said about you will cycle through their conversations.

You now have an offense and defense

Write down all of the observed unwritten rules you find at your company.

It is the situations in this list that you must avoid—or navigate intelligently to advance your ideas.

To get tangled up in them in anything but a strategic way, is to invite time and wasted energy that you will need to spend in other ways to be successful.

To brilliantly use the intelligence of what is going on with the unwritten rules, you have to get focused on what it is that you are trying to accomplish.

Are you working toward a promotion?

Are you trying to get a new idea to be embraced by a few people?

Are you trying to positively influence people in a bullying culture?

Let’s say you know there is an unwritten rule of certain people gossiping.

On one hand, this knowledge can be used as a defensive tactic. For instance, guard what you say around them especially if it is something you don’t want them talking about. That is an easy example.

On the other hand, you can use the rumor mill to your advantage to advance your idea for a project.

Seed the problem that your project fixes.

For instance, if you have a new process that you are trying to implement, this could be effective “Joe, I realized that our current (way of doing x) takes us two weeks to complete. Can you believe that? There has to be a better way."

Joe will take on the “headline” that you shared, and will socialize it. Prompting people to consider the headline and want to take action.

Get ahead of the game. Go write down your unwritten rules now. Understand that on top of company rules, there may be different unwritten rules for people you work with.

Once you have your list of unwritten rules, you have the rules of the game.

Good luck Smuggler!

~Natalie Neelan - Author of Rebel at Work - How to innovate and drive results when you aren’t the boss