What are the unwritten rules in your organization? The differences between, say, how the expense policy is written versus what is enforced, the ‘open door’ that actually isn’t, the real decision-makers versus what the org chart suggests?
While it feels good to navigate these hidden structures (you’re savvy, you’re in-the-know), imagine how it feels to those on the outside. Especially imagine how it feels for someone who doesn’t even know these rules exist (appeals through the proper channels seemingly randomly ignored, others seemingly getting away with flaunting the written rules).
These unwritten rules sometimes paradoxically emerge from attempts to remove the direct influence of authority on people’s day-to-day lives. We have unlimited PTO (but not that much and not at that time that you want), we don’t have bosses, org charts, or defined job roles (good luck figuring out how to get a raise), we work collaboratively (but always end up choosing what a particular person says).
For this reason, if you are trying to build a collaborative culture, explicitly defined centers of authority with a method of redress are preferable to shadow decision-makers. Jo Freeman covers this more extensively in the context of feminist social and political groups in her essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness.
In that context, a viable method of redress is rotation of authority and democratic control of leadership. I’m not aware of any companies that have tried to organize internally in this fashion, but it would be an interesting experiment. Valve’s ‘flat’ management structure, for example, has little defined authority and seems to be an example that proves the point I’m making. In a more typical company structure, explicitly defined authority usually includes a way to escalate up the hierarchy (boss’s boss) or appeal through a side channel like HR (though these are fraught with unwritten rules as well). I do find it interesting that the same companies who are convinced that a competing, unregulated, market soup is the optimal condition for the economy at large also tend to run their internal economies via central planning.
Social influence, reputation, and hierarchy aren’t going away. The dynamics within and between groups of people are complex and constantly changing. As we build diverse cultures and companies, we should look to avoid common places where outside perspectives are marginalized or alienated. Relying on unwritten rules, many of which are only known to those with the right economic or social background, further excludes the very viewpoints we are trying to welcome and limits what we collectively are able to accomplish.
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