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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