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Closed Doors, Implied Rules, and Unspoken Agreements
"How about we make work better together?" That's the question Charlie Gilkey asks in his new book, Team Habits. Examining implied rules and unspoken agreements is one way to start.
I like rules. Always have.
Clear-cut rules. Codified rules. Rules like ‘yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk,’ ‘drive on the right side of the road,’ and ‘wait your turn at a 4-way stop.’
Explicit rules make me comfortable.
They help make the world a bit more predictable. And they give me a clear framework for aligning my own behavior.1
I like rules so much that I have a whole set that only exists in my brain. Many of those rules have to do with food: fish and cheese don't go together, every meal needs something crunchy, and don't mix ethnic flavor profiles unless you're intentionally doing a fusion thing. I might even go without eating if I can't eat without violating my rules.2
Now that I've told you that, I remember why these rules only exist in my brain.
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While explicit rules put me at ease, the presence of implied rules makes me very nervous.
I don't know what's off-limits or what's expected of me. I don't know what others might do (or not do). I feel anxious imagining all the ways I might step out of line without knowing it. The anxiety can become so great that I avoid situations in which I don't know the implied rules—which is a lot of situations.
If I don't know the implied rules of a new situation, I feel locked out. There's a big door between me and that new experience—and hanging on that door is a sign that says KEEP OUT in bold red capital letters. Of course, I'm not locked out—“all” I'd need to do is turn the knob, open the door, and walk through. Everything would probably be fine.
On a good day, I might try my luck with the door and pass through into a new experience. But unless I encounter explicit rules on the other side, I'll be vigilant about what the implied rules are and how I might be breaking them. By the time I cross back through the door into a more comfortable space, I'm utterly exhausted.
On a not-so-good day, I won't even look at the door. I'll pretend that it's not there to avoid feeling like an outsider.
In her book The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker makes a distinction between etiquette and what she calls "pop-up rules." Etiquette is a set of inherited rules, understood by a certain group of people as "the way things are" but generally not codified as rules per se. Pop-up rules, on the other hand, are explicit rules that guide the behavior of people who don't share a common understanding of implied rules.
Often, we think about preventing things from going wrong, but artful gatherers design rules that make things go right.
A great pop-up rule is an explicit, temporary, accessible set of instructions to help a group of disparate people participate in a shared experience. Rules can create an imaginary, transient world that is actually more playful than your everyday gathering.
— Priya Parker, “The Power of a Good Rule”
Etiquette, she explains, helps to organize (and reinforce) sameness. Pop-up rules, on the other hand, help to organize and accommodate difference.
For someone who understands the etiquette of their group well, pop-up rules can feel odd—even stifling.
'Why do we need this extra layer of bureaucratic meddling in what is a perfectly normal situation?' But that's just the thing: what's "perfectly normal" for those in power or from the dominant culture isn't perfectly normal to those who aren't.
Those who aren't part of the in-group—the group that sets and maintains etiquette—spend an inordinate amount of time learning the implied rules of the groups they're part of. It's the only way to get through the door with the KEEP OUT sign. And even then, stepping across the threshold is stepping into a situation that could become dangerous at any time.
This is true socially and culturally, but it's also true at work. Maybe even especially true at work.
Culturally, we call these implied rules "folkways." But at work, we might think of implied rules and unspoken agreements as "workways." That's the namegives them. Charlie is a good friend, frequent collaborator, and author of the new book Team Habits: How Small Actions Lead to Extraordinary Results.
An example of a folkway is the implied rule that if you invite someone over to your house for dinner, they'll bring a gift—often a bottle of wine. "Nowhere in our culture," Charlie explains, "is there an explicit rule that says, 'If friend invites you over, then bring wine.' It's just one of those things we implicitly agree is a thing, and it's pseudo-rude if I don't do it."
Folkways are socially reproduced—that is, we learn folkways through observation and imitation. They're passed on through our families and cultural groups. Folkways often help define who is in the in-group and who is in the out-group because those who share particular rules or practices know that they belong in the same group.
Folkways are part of our intersubjective reality.
Intersubjective reality is the realm of "things that are real and true because you and I agree that they're real and true," describes Charlie.
The fact that you and I can agree that a piece of paper that says $5 is worth a certain amount of goods or services helps to grease the wheels of society. It enables a particular form of exchange.
But it's not the only way to make buying and selling easier. We could agree at any time to conduct business in other ways. And we have! Historically, we used various forms of debt to buy and sell. We do to this day. After all, I haven't had a $5 bill or any denomination of bill in my wallet for a few years now!
Intersubjectivity is malleable by definition.
That's important because intersubjective realities aren't all rainbows and cupcakes.
"Isms" are folkways, too.
"If you look at systemic racism, systemic sexism, or the white patriarchy in organizations, those are intersubjective agreements that we agree are true just because we agree that they're true," cautions Charlie. When people make these systems visible and question their validity, it can set off alarm bells for the people who have benefitted from the implied nature of these systems. It can feel like the Natural Order is being questioned. But there's nothing natural about the way we order society. Our systems, structures, and unspoken agreements are all value judgments that change as our values change.
We might question why women don't major in STEM fields as often as men do. We might question why heterosexual parents enjoy privileges that queer parents don't. Or we might question why gender is something that the government needs to regulate at all. Like, sure, I've always marked F in the gender box on my driver's license—but why does my driver's license have to document my gender at all?
The concept of "professionalism" is a giant catch-all for in-group intersubjective reality at work.
We need to expand our attention toward addressing more subtle barriers, from using biased hiring metrics to the acceptance of some work styles over others. Only then will we begin to address the damage done by the biased forms of professionalism that dominate workplaces in the United States and other white-majority countries.
— Aysa Gray, Stanford Social Innovation Review
A certain amount of makeup on a woman is "professional," and more than that amount of makeup isn't. A certain way of styling Black hair is "professional," and other ways of styling Black hair aren't. A certain way of speaking is "professional," and other ways of speaking aren't.
But none of those judgments belong to objective reality. We can't even say they're part of someone's subjective reality. It's not subjective reality because even if I "feel" that a particular outfit is professional or not, that feeling is part of learned social agreement—our intersubjective reality.
Turning again to workways, Charlie describes how most organizations operate with a set of basic unspoken agreements that allow a new hire to step in on Day 1 and generally know what's expected of them. They'll still need to learn that organization's specific workways and the particular habits of the team they're working on, but the basics tend to carry over from one workplace to another.
One way these basic workways play out and are reinforced is through the organizational structure and its distribution of power: Who has power, and who doesn't? Whose buy-in do you need for a project? Who speaks up in meetings? Who controls the schedule, time off, or conflict resolution? Based on our previous experiences, we'll assume power flows in similar ways in new experiences.
Team habits are part of the constellation of workways.
And you don't need institutional power to positively impact your team's habits. "What we have done in work is ignored one axis of power," explains Charlie. We're pretty comfortable examining and shifting personal power—that is, taking the advice of self-help and leadership books. And we're pretty comfortable with institutional power—that is, wielding the power of hierarchy or deferring to the powers that be. But, Charlie argues, "there's this middle axis of team or relational power that we forget about."
When we're focused on either personal power or institutional power, conflicts at work tend to be seen along worker/management lines. Charlie uses team habits to activate team power. Focusing on team power takes pressure off the individual at the same time it empowers each member of the team to improve work for everyone. If we can agree that we're working toward a common goal rather than competing for dominance, we can work together with less friction and more empathy.
"What I want people to really think about," says Charlie, is how to think of "these wonderful people that you work with and treat them the same way I would treat" a friend. "What can we do together? Because we're going to show up to work anyways. How about we make work better together?"
How about we make work better together?
This all sounds reasonable enough, right? And it is! But it's easy to forget how subversive this can be in your average workplace—or even your average home office.
Unspoken, preexisting workways are almost always based on hierarchy.
Expected behavior is based on your role, your responsibilities, and where you fit on the ladder in relation to others. Whether or not I can walk through the door or how I'll be received on the other side is determined by my position in the hierarchy.
Unexamined, hierarchy tends to default to patriarchal white supremacy norms. Charlie points to Tema Okun's work on White Supremacy Culture Characteristics as a way of naming these norms. "One right way, right to comfort, worship of the written word," clarifies Charlie, "when you really look at them, what you start untangling is that maybe we don't have to operate in this hierarchy where there are some people—typically, in our society, white men—who win and are served, and the rest of us who lose and serve them."
The more we push back against these assumptions—assumptions about perfection, power, and leadership, among others—the wider we open the door. More people can contribute to team efforts. More people can work toward a common initiative.
But opening that door can be confusing and uncomfortable for people who have trained their whole lives to fit into those assumptions. That's, of course, not a reason to lock the door, but it is a critical reminder that change takes time and coordinated effort.
The penultimate chapter of Team Habits is about the politics of team habits.
When I say that team habits are political, I'm not talking about backstabbing power plays, cliques, in-groups, or all the other native connotations of workplace politics. Instead, I'm talking about the process of bringing a group of people together around a common initiative.
Team habit change is about alignment, not power.
Charlie tells me that one of his goals for Team Habits is to help people "take a step back and have some empathy for their fellow workers, no matter where they are in the echelon." It's easy to assume that you work with "idiots" and "people just out to get you." But, what if, Charlie asks, "they are really overwhelmed, doing the best they can, have competing priorities, and they're just trying to get through the day like you are?"
Just like Priya Parker identifies "pop-up rules" as a tool for more inclusive gatherings, Charlie identifies team habits as a tool for more effective and inclusive work environments.
By making team habits explicit, we have a chance to examine the status quo—and change it to make it better.
"When you make the 'obvious' explicit, you realize that it wasn't that obvious," argues Charlie. "It was obvious to you, but it wasn't obvious to someone else."
He knows that some will argue that an approach like this won't scale. You can't create buy-in, belonging, and rapport across even dozens of team members. But, he counters, "I'm not talking about it scaling. I'm talking about this being between four to eight people that you spend most of your work days with."
Charlie realized that the questions being asked in the business and leadership aisle of any books are the same questions being asked in the relationships aisle: "Are they the one? How do we have more positive experiences with each other? How do we not fight as much? How do we share a plan about where we're going? How do we build resources?"
"Same questions," he tells me, "it's fundamentally about relationships. So because it's fundamentally about relationships, any work that you do to improve the relationships [you have] with your teammates will not go in vain."
Building the "bedrock of belonging and rapport and trust" is what enables any team to perform at their best. "You can continually raise the bar that you all want to raise together." But, at the end of the day, it's not even about performance. It's about showing up to work and feeling "seen and valued as a human" and showing others that they're seen and valued as humans as well.
"To open a door that has been kept closed is an important act," writes Ursula K. Le Guin.
Improving team habits opens a door. It invites people in. It acknowledges, appreciates, and even empowers people.
Improving team habits will probably improve team performance. But even if it doesn't, we get the benefit of seeing ourselves and others as human beings.
Between a strong sense of justice, tendency toward literal interpretation, and challenges with interpreting social norms, autistic people often have a great affection for clear-cut rules.
Don't worry: I know this isn't ideal. I now work really hard to always have some food on hand that I am willing to eat no matter what. And yes, strong food preferences and food rules are common among autistic people, too.