Learning the Unwritten Rules


At a conference, I heard a senior director from Catalyst (a leading organization focused on advancing women) speak about Unwritten Rules: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You. Like the presenter, I wish I could say that doing a good job is enough. It simply isn’t. Although performance matters, understanding and playing by the unwritten rules can have a huge impact on your career advancement.

I want to share three of the strategies or “learning approaches” that Catalyst found in its research to help discover the unwritten rules. The research also reveals the effectiveness of each strategy in career advancement and breaks down the data by gender.

1. Observation

This approach involves taking time to really understand how things work by paying attention to what other successful employees do, how they behave, and who gets promoted. Almost 90 percent of survey respondents said they had learned through observation, and 49 percent would recommend this approach.

Most of us have a lot going on day-to-day, so this strategy may not get the attention it deserves. Take a minute right now to ask yourself how often you take time to simply notice what is going on around you and Connect the Dots. As organizations go through changes, and leaders move up or out, taking time to do this periodically may give you some important insight.

2. Mentoring and Feedback

The second key learning approach centers on regularly seeking guidance and input from others about what it takes to succeed, staying in tune with your own behavior and performance, and using the information to understand what matters most in the organization. Eighty percent said they used this approach, and 32 percent would recommend it to others.

Remember that engaging others in giving you guidance and feedback can also go a long way in creating sponsors, people who have a vested interest in your success and will advocate on your behalf.

3. Trial and Error

This strategy, which some may call “learning from the school of hard knocks,” is all about figuring out what works and doesn’t as you go along.

Although a huge percentage of respondents learned unwritten rules this way — 78 percent to be exact — only 18 percent found this approach helpful.

Wow, wouldn’t it be nice if someone just saved you the trouble and handed you a list of all the unwritten rules? Since that probably won’t happen, think about one small step you can take to put one of the most effective strategies into play for yourself.