Unwritten rules: why doing a good job may not be enough

Catalyst, the US-based think-tank, has just published a new report compiled from the responses of 700 respondents based in Europe at senior levels – 55 per cent of whom were women and 45 per cent men. The focus was on executives in large companies (60 per cent of the companies surveyed had 10,000 or more employees, and 85 per cent had a global scope).

Participating companies included American Express, BMO Financial Group, Chevron, Deloitte, Deutsche Bank, Ernst & Young, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, McDonald’s and UPS.

The survey opens:

Advancing in today’s business world is often as much about learning and playing by the rules as it is about demonstrating talent and delivering results. Some rules are explicitly stated in organisational handbooks and performance review procedures, or by senior leadership. But other rules are left implicit, unwritten — for employees to decipher on their own.

Unwritten rules are often more potent than written rules – and harder to access, especially for newcomers. The Catalyst research uncovers eight key unwritten rules to advancement, from building professional networks to putting in “face time” and ensuring visibility.

The main scoring strategy cited by women, which they wished they had focused on more, was to establish mentoring relationships with higher-level managers.

What the survey revealed was a “subtle disconnect” between strategies that respondents rated as most important to advancement and those they actually adopted. So while they focused on time (hours worked) and performance (doing a great job), they rated career building (planning a career) and relationship building (leveraging networks) as at least as – if not more – important to career progress.

This survey echoes a number of other reports into winning strategies for women in the workplace that this blog has examined over the past few months.

Companies operate in similar ways to other human collectives, social groups or tribes. Newcomers to the group have to learn the grammar of behaviour by observation and occasional questioning of a trusted insider. Native speakers do not need to learn the grammar of the language they speak instinctively. These unwritten codes serve to bond the group together, in anthropological language, but are they always benevolent?

If getting on is all about being one of the boys – or girls – are we in danger of rewarding mediocrity and stifling innovation? More transparent measures of success are fairer and more likely to reward the real talent in an organisation, rather than the furniture.

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Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.