Career and Jobs

For Career Success, Pay Attention To The ‘Unspoken Rules’

Some people spend much of their lives—especially in the workplace—navigating unspoken rules.

You know, those cultural guidelines that never appear in a published handbook and rarely even come up in conversation. Everyone just seems to “know” the rules, so they’re simply followed.

Over time, the unspoken rules become fossilized as unchallenged traces of the past.

Many unspoken rules may be innocuous, while others may smack of unconscious bias or other blind spots that can impact performance.

Identifying such blind spots is an important step in working within any organization’s culture. But because they are unofficial and unpublished, you sometimes have to search for them. And if you’re new to the organization, smoothly maneuvering through the unspoken rules is critical to your success.

It requires focus.

That’s what Gorick Ng provides in his entertaining and informative book The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right.

Gorick is a career adviser at Harvard. He specializes in helping first-generation, low-income students. He’s the son of a single mother who dropped out of school at the age of 12 to work in a sewing machine factory.

Through trial and error, Gorick learned firsthand how to become an exceptional employee. To identify the most universal problems faced by early-career professional, he interviewed more than 500 people in multiple career stages. He found solutions to a wide range of workplace challenges.

Rodger Dean Duncan:  If certain success practices are embedded in “unspoken rules,” how and why do they remain hidden from so many people?

Gorick Ng: Unspoken rules remain unspoken because they silently morph from “things we don’t know we don’t know” to “things we consider common sense.” It’s the idea of “tacit knowledge.” Ask an NBA basketball player what it takes to shoot a basket and he’ll probably tell you it just comes naturally. But ask a novice and he’ll have a million questions: “Where do I position my feet? How should I move my arms? Where do I grip the ball?” 

The workplace is no different. Observe high performing colleagues and you’ll likely notice that they have a habit of repeating back instructions when delegated tasks. Observe interns and you’ll likely see them smiling and nodding—even when they don’t fully understand what’s going on.

How does one acquire this habit and mindset? Not in school where every test or assignment comes with black-and-white instructions. You learn these unspoken rules by being coached, observing others, or, in my case, getting yelled at.

Not all unspoken rules remain unspoken for the same reasons, however. Some are too awkward or politically incorrect to talk about. How many managers will admit to judging you based on how promptly you answer their emails? How many will say, “Yeah, the quality of our small talk influences how much I care to invest in your career”? They might tell their children, but I doubt they’d tell their subordinates. That’s where there emerges an unlevel playing field between insiders and outsiders.

Duncan: For a person who’s new to a particular workplace, what are the best ways to uncover the most pertinent unspoken rules?

Ng: Three ways: (1) Ask someone who used to work for your manager, (2) observe the most respected people at or near your level, and (3) confirm your observations with a trusted coworker.

A seemingly uncommon—but actually very common—practice is to ask a predecessor, “Do you have any tips for working with so-and-so?” and “What do you wish you had known sooner?” People are generally open to helping, assuming they left on good terms, don’t see you as a threat, and, as a result, want to see you succeed. The same applies to current colleagues. In fact, there is almost an unspoken rule that you’d ask your coworkers for their advice. It shows that you’re willing to learn—that you’re committed to succeeding while showing deference to (and compatibility with) your more experienced coworkers. It’s also a beneficial relationship-building opportunity.

Duncan: You say that in addition to hard work (which you acknowledge should be a given) a person new to a job should clearly demonstrate what you call the Three Cs—Competence, Commitment, and Compatibility. What do these three things “look like” in observable behaviors?

Ng: On Competence: When you have a question, resist the urge to pull a coworker aside immediately unless the building is burning down. Search your old emails, dig through the shared folder, and search online. Then, ask a coworker at your level, “Here’s my question… and here’s how I’ve tried to answer this question myself.” If they can’t help, then ask the next least junior teammate—each time, explaining how you’ve exhausted all options before asking for help. It’s the unspoken rule of “do—and show—your homework.” You’re showing that you are competent enough to think for yourself and committed enough to help yourself.

On Commitment: When you’re new, people know that you don’t know much (yet), so expect you to take notes, ask questions, and, when you don’t have much else going on, ask around to see if you can help with any ongoing projects. If you don’t, people may wonder how interested in your job you really are. It’s the unspoken rule of “show you want to learn and help.” 

On Compatibility: As harmless and optional as pre-meeting small-talk and team socials may seem, they are far from optional in many work environments. Small talk may feel natural to some, but can be nerve-wracking to those who may not have any shared interests or experiences with their colleagues. Here, my guidance is this: when in doubt, ask a question. You may not be able to say “Oh yeah? Me too!” But you can at least say “Oh, interesting! What was it like?”

Duncan: Employee engagement is clearly important to the success of today’s organizations. What can employees do to stay appropriately engaged with their leaders and peers, especially in an environment where much of the work is done remotely?

Ng: The simplest way is to be proactive, rather than reactive. An under-appreciated way to win over a manager is simply to ask, “How can I be helpful?” “Is there anything I can do to be helpful?” or, even better, “Would it be helpful if I did ______?” (where you show up with a proposal rather than an open-ended question). It’s not enough simply to say the line, of course—you need to do what you say you will do. But simple gestures like this can go a long way in establishing yourself as someone who is engaged—or, in the language of the Three C’s, committed.

Duncan: You suggest that people looking for work should refine and sharpen their personal stories. Tell us more about that.

Ng: In today’s hyper competitive job market it’s critical to position yourself as someone who (1) has done a similar job before, (2) will help the company achieve its goals, and, therefore, (3) are low-risk.

Companies aren’t hiring you out of the goodness of their hearts. They are hiring you to help them achieve their goals. I like thinking in terms of fill-in-the-blank. In this case, it’s the MadLibs of being able to say the equivalent of “I can help your team achieve [whatever important goal] and you can trust that I can do this for you because I successfully helped [this other organization] achieve [this similar goal].” The better you can articulate how you can hit the ground running, the better your chances of getting hired.

Haven’t done the exact same job before? Focus on your transferable skills. You have them, no matter where you worked. In the words of a laboratory coordinator turned construction site project manager I interviewed for my research, “Whether I’m overseeing $30 million in research funds or $30 million in construction funds, it’s the same idea. There might be different line items, but a budget is a budget.”

Duncan: How can new hires make an impact beyond their own job descriptions without coming across as pushy or presumptuous?

Ng: Pay attention to what goals your manager, team, department and company are trying to reach. What are the higher-ups complaining about? The higher up the complainers are, the more complainers there are, and the more they complain, the bigger the opportunity may be. But there’s a catch: It’s all about stepping up without overstepping. Before plowing ahead, you need to investigate whether someone is already responsible for this problem or whether it is an unoccupied “swim lane.” If it’s an occupied swim lane, then you may want to ask for this person’s permission. Otherwise, you risk overshooting your “zone of competence” and potentially looking threatening. But if you’ve found an unoccupied swim lane, then go ahead, raise your hand, and make yourself useful. The more you understand what matters to those who matter, the more you’ll find work that matters. And the more you find—and do—work that matters, the more you will matter.

Duncan: Frame of mind is critical to success in most any endeavor. What mindset seems to be most helpful to people as they navigate through their careers?

Ng: So many capable people fail to reach their full potential—not because they don’t have it in them, but because they became their own gatekeeper. If the worst-case scenario is the other person says “no,” your fear is really a fear of judgment—not a fear of danger. Leave it to other people to tell you “no.” Don’t limit yourself before you’ve even given yourself a chance. I call this the mindset of “let’s give this a shot.” Do you have a crazy idea that probably won’t work—but might work? Let’s give this a shot. Is there something you’ll probably fail at—but might succeed at? Let’s give this a shot. Is there something you probably won’t like—but might like? Let’s give this a shot.

Duncan: If you had to distill to a 280-character tweet the most important “ah ha” you received in your research on success in the workplace, what would you write?

Ng: No matter the geography, industry, function, or work setting, there is a universal definition for what makes a top-performer. It all comes down to demonstrating the right dose of Competence, Commitment, and Compatibility.

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