Chasing Ghost Rules


Parts of this episode are excerpted from Herding Tigers: Be The Leader That Creative People Need

Have you ever walked into a company’s headquarters and passed an enormous marble wall engraved with the company’s values? There it is, in all its permanence and glory, greeting employees each day and reminding them: “THIS IS WHO WE ARE!”

Except, it’s not always. It’s who they were, once. Most people walk right past that wall without even paying it a moment of notice. They’re numb to it, and it doesn’t really hold any sway over their everyday behavior. Your culture isn’t defined by a set of tenets or a plaque on the wall. It’s defined by what you do.

If you say that you value boldness but always make the most comfortable decision, then people will cease to be bold.

If you say that you value customer service, but you are always snickering and telling stories about how annoying your customers are, then you will train your culture to devalue its customers.

If you say that you value truth telling, but you get defensive every time someone attempts to offer a piece of constructive feedback, you will cultivate a reactive, closed-minded culture.

This kind of hypocrisy is demoralizing. However, with clear ground rules and a stable culture around your team, people know they have the support they need to take risks. Your team’s experience of you is its experience of the company. Period. Full stop. When cultural expectations aren’t well defined, people tend to be very conservative out of a fear of getting it wrong.

Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of Visa, once said, “Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior.” However, you cannot impose a culture on a team. Great cultures are grown from the ground up. A culture mandated from on high will fit like a suit that’s three sizes too large, never quite cut to size.

Because cultures are grown, you must treat yours like a garden. Just like a good gardener, you aggressively fertilize the aspects of your team’s culture that you want in abundance and diligently prune the things you want to get rid of. This requires constant attention on your part, because if you allow a few errant behaviors to slide, you will eventually find your entire garden choked with weeds.

Prune the “Ghost Rules”

Ella was a successful manager at a very large company. I was challenging her to think in a new way about a tricky problem she was attempting to solve, but when I offered my thought, she quickly responded, “Nope—that won’t work here.”

I paused, a little stunned at her abruptness, and asked, “Why not?”

She looked at me as if collecting her thoughts, and after a few moments she replied, “Hmm. Good question.” After further dissection, we realized that Ella’s response had been hardwired into her by a previous manager, who often had strong, fear-based opinions about new ideas. “That won’t work here” was a common reaction to many of Ella’s fresh thoughts, and over time she began to adopt these opinions as hard fact.

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior.” – Dee Hock

What Ella had come up against are what I call ghost rules, or invisible limitations that people or teams place upon themselves for no good reason. Sometimes these rules become baked-in organizational assumptions about what is and isn’t possible, and the net result is that the team artificially limits the places it looks for ideas or value.

In order for your team to feel freedom to do its best work, regularly prune ghost rules from your life and your team’s culture. Following are a few examples of ghost rules I frequently see.

What Will and Won’t Work?
A manager from a large company once told me that he was instructed not to pursue a particular idea because “someone tried that back in the 1980s, and it didn’t work.” Apart from the laws of physics, a lot of things have changed in the past thirty years. It’s probably wise to revisit some of these baked-in organizational assumptions from time to time, just like Ella did, and ensure that you’re not missing potentially valuable insights.

Is your team paralyzed because of assumptions or narratives about what will and won’t work? Challenge any declarative statement by asking “Why?” If you do not receive an answer, then it’s possible that the team is operating by assumption, not fact.

Who Can and Can’t Introduce an Idea?
Some teams have invisible rules about who is allowed to contribute ideas to a project or who is allowed to offer thoughts or criticism about a decision. Although you do need to have a protocol for sharing ideas and offering critique, narrowing your scope of vision to just a handful of people can be extremely limiting. Ensure that everyone on the team understands clearly what’s expected of them and the actual process for sharing feedback or ideas, not the perceived one.

Are team members limiting their feedback or shrinking back from offering insights because they feel it’s not their place to do so? Identify and eliminate these ghost rules from your culture by replacing them—in the moment you catch them—with the principles that you want reinforce. In meetings, call on people who never share and ask them to offer their opinions. Invite new people to meetings who are always on the outside. Shake up the assumptions with actions that are rooted instead in your core principles.

What Is and Isn’t Acceptable Behavior?
Expectation escalation can quickly take over a team’s culture and turn it into a pressure cooker. When a team member decides to come in at 7 a.m. one morning, another makes it 6:45 a.m. the following morning. Then 6:30 a.m. Pretty soon, the cultural thermostat is set, and the assumed behavior is “we are a culture that expects people to arrive to work before the sun rises.” No one ever stated it explicitly, but all new hires observed the behavior and they assume “this must be the way it is around here.”

Are there behaviors on your team that are assumed to be expectations but are in fact simply a result of expectation escalation? Identify and squelch them.

The worst part about ghost rules is that some leaders actually use them to manipulate the team into achieving the results they want, regardless of the negative consequences. They might allow team members to believe certain things to be true—working weekends is expected, e-mail responses within minutes are required, challenging certain people’s ideas is off limits—in order to make their own life easier. Although people might comply with the ghost rules in order to keep their jobs, these leaders will not maintain the trust and respect of their team for long.

You want your team operating by simple, clear principles so that it can be messy and risky with the work it does. If people are wasting their mental energy just trying to comply with invisible barriers that no one has really set for them, they will feel disempowered and unable to bring their full heart and soul to the work.

Exercise: Identify any ghost rules that your team is following. These could be residual rules from a previous leader or organizational rules that you need to prune. Replace them with a counter principle.

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