Unwritten Ground Rules (UGRs): The key to workplace culture

What is a company? It sounds like a simple question, but there is more than one answer. According to the dictionary, a company is simply “a commercial business.”

Whilst that may literally define the word, I think we can all agree that it’s much more than that. 

For an entrepreneur, a company could be a lifetime’s worth of blood, sweat, and tears. For an employee, a company could simply mean the place you go in order to earn your pay. Or it could be the fulfilment of a dream. For an intern, a company could be a stepping stone to bigger and better things, or a first real-world working experience. These are personal perspectives. 

Whilst a company could be many things to many different people other than “a commercial business,” it wouldn’t be what it is without the people who work in it every day. 

Whether it’s the Managing Director or CEO making decisions about where to go next, or the accounts payable clerk making sure the bills get paid, a company is made up of different personalities doing different types of tasks. They are united by one thing: workplace culture

Workplace culture has been getting more of the spotlight in recent years, and for good reason. As the working world has changed significantly over the past decade, the typical employee has more autonomy than ever before. Employees may no longer need to stick to the typical 9am to 5pm schedule in the office – Monday to Friday – to get their work done in the most optimal way possible. 

Since employees now have more freedom than ever before in terms of how they work and who they work for, it’s important for companies to focus on the culture they foster within the business

A great culture can allow managers to be relatively hands-off, while employees are able to do their best work and grow the organisation with ease. On the other hand, a poor company culture can make employees unhappy – and hinder the growth of the organisation.

Myths about workplace culture

Workplace culture is being discussed a lot, but it’s often misunderstood and misconceived. Many of these myths and misconceptions are outlined in this Entrepreneur article by John Rampton

Making the top of Rampton’s list is the assumption that workplace culture doesn’t start with you. In fact, if you are a CEO or Managing Director of a company, you’re defining the culture every day through the actions you take and the interactions you have with employees, vendors, partners, and customers. 

As a company leader, people are going to model their behaviour on yours, so it’s extremely important to think about the example you set – however mundane the everyday interaction may seem. Whilst this is important to keep in mind when leading an organisation in a literal sense, it’s also key to remember that anyone within a company could be a leader in their own right. They can begin setting an example for others to follow – even if they’ve recently joined in a junior position. 

Another big misconception about workplace culture is that there is a clear-cut right and wrong way to do it. Every organisation is unique, so each optimal culture is different. 

For example, if your organisation is trying to solve a high-stakes problem like finding a cure for a deadly disease, a workplace culture which encourages daily happy hours at 4:30pm will not be the best fit – and won’t help the bigger mission. By the same token, if your organisation is a non-profit in which a lot of the team are unpaid volunteers, having a workplace culture that encourages relentless hard work and high pressure also doesn’t fit the situation. 

Put simply: there is no “copy-and-paste” workplace culture template.

Once you take a long hard look at what your organisation is trying to achieve, you can make better decisions about whether or not you have the culture in place to get you there.

An introduction to Unwritten Ground Rules (UGRs)

When it comes to defining workplace culture, many companies put idealistic behaviours into carefully- crafted documents that may be shared with new hires, or posted on the wall for all employees to see.

These may be value statements such as “We encourage collaboration between departments” and “Our customer is our number one priority.”  While at face value these are obviously noble considerations for most organisations, the daily behaviours of employees may in fact exemplify the opposite of these. 

The term, Unwritten Ground Rules (UGRs), was coined by Australian consultant Steve Simpson. In summary, UGRs are really what make up your company culture. These are the behaviours and routines followed by many employees which may or may not line up with the concrete business “values”.

For example, if a new employee begins work in the accounting department and is told that “our company encourages collaboration between departments,” they might approach the purchasing department with an idea for better cross-departmental communication. If a manager tells them to stick to their own lane, they’ll quickly learn that this explicit rule is not true in practice. The UGR is actually to “not meddle”. 

Through these daily interactions and real-world examples, people learn “how things are done around here” – which ends up being the reality of your workplace culture. Having so much of the true culture of an organisation being formed by these seemingly-harmless interactions is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is simply more difficult to see, control, and monitor them.  In the next section, I will list some potential negatives and positives of UGRs in the workplace:

Positive & negative UGRs

The above example of shunning the new employee for making a suggestion about cross-departmental communication would be a negative example of UGRs at work. This occurs when your organisation has an idealistic value or mission statement, but the behaviour which is encouraged and reinforced by management directly opposes that value or mission statement

These scenarios can be common in older organisations as the “that’s the way we do things around here” mentality can be difficult to change when it comes to employee behaviour. When new employees join teams and are dealt with this set of negative UGRs, the impact can be exponential – as they then pass on the habits to new members. This perpetuates the cycle, and can create a toxic working environment. 

But UGRs aren’t all bad news! If you can cultivate a positive set of UGRs, they can have a natural and lasting impact on company culture – positively influencing the way that team members behave. 

For example, if you work in an industry with tight deadlines and fluctuating project-based workloads, a positive UGR would be that people stick around to help get the job done, rather than heading home at 5pm no matter what. This level of commitment can’t be forced – but it can be considered as “the right thing to do” by a workforce, if they have bought into the wider mission and feel respected.

Other positive UGRs might be things like: not undermining or talking over colleagues on a client call, addressing concerns direct with a colleague rather than going over their head, being open to helping new joiners get settled into the group, collaborating with people in other departments, chipping in to help with customer support when required, and much more. 

How to change the UGRs within your organisation

Just as cultures can vary as much as organisations vary, cultures can also vary in the same organisation – depending on the stage of that organisation at the time. For example, an organisation in the start-up phase may have a completely different culture once the company reaches maturity twenty years later. 

A 3-person company getting off the ground may have the “20-hour workday” mentality, which gets the company to the point where things are running smoothly – and the team grows to 100 employees. Whilst the management team might keep this pace, it’s unrealistic (and unhelpful) to expect the wider workforce to invest the same number of hours as the business expands. 

While it’s easy to put a grand statement on the wall about how your company should “embrace change” or “think outside the box,” it can be easier said than done, especially when it comes to human behaviour. 

The first step is to consciously learn what your company’s UGRs are.

I wrote another piece recently, which outlines the step-by-step process for figuring our UGRs. In a nutshell, it follows this structure:

  1. Awareness: Making all staff aware of the concept of a UGR, and what it means. Make them think about what the UGRs are within your organisation. 
  2. Take stock: Get together to talk about the common UGRs in your business. Ask them to finish the sentence, “around here…”. For example, “around here, being open and honest gets you…”.
  3. Create positive UGRs: Get the team to plan out their chosen positive UGRs which will create an ideal working environment and contribute to business success. 
  4. Embed positive UGRs: Incorporate these UGRs into what you do, and enforce them stringently. Request that staff confront managers if they break them, and 

The first step will be the most difficult, as it involves getting to the core of what UGRs exist within your organisation. This might involve picking apart relationships between managers and team members, and might drag up incidents or mistakes in the past. 

This will damage egos, but it needs to be done in order to get UGRs out into the open. 

Blayne Webb, a Director at Barringtons does a great job of breaking down how UGRs can begin and be reinforced on their blog. In essence, it’s important to keep in mind that employees are always watching management and paying attention to which behaviours are reinforced, punished, and ignored. 

In order to change UGRs within an organisation, there needs to be clear and consistent action from management which encourage positive UGRs and discourage negative ones. 

By leading by example, Managing Directors and C-suite executives can consciously choose how their team sees them acting. This is a powerful thing to keep in mind when looking to make a positive change in an organisation – and a dangerous thing for MDs and CEOs to forget. 

Final takeaways…

From the outside looking in, any company may seem like a very complex and diverse organisation. However, as complicated as any company might look from the outside, they are all simply communities of people working with the resources they have to get their jobs done.

The underlying foundation for how employees, managers, directors, and C-level executives interact with each other and the world around them stems from the culture that runs through the organisation. 

Culture is a living and breathing thing within an organisation. It is seen to be formed through mission statements and official initiatives, when in fact every small interaction and daily decision has a cumulative impact on the “way things are done”. These UGRs are passed throughout the organisation, and given to new recruits. As a leader, you need to ensure the UGRs are positive and helpful.

In order to ensure that your culture is not emerging in harmful direction, it’s crucial to keep your finger on the pulse of UGRs and make sure the positives are reinforced and negatives are nipped in the bud.

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