A few nights ago, we had torrential rain. I’m not joking when I say I could have kayaked down our street. I took a peek outside and noticed something that caused immediate concern—water coming over the gutters. Obviously, the downspout was obstructed; but since it was pouring rain, checking it out was out of the question.
I caught the weather earlier this evening and more violent storms are forecasted for tomorrow. So after dinner, I grabbed my ladder and made the 10+ feet ascent up the rungs dreading what I might find. Surely enough—leaves. LOTS of leaves. I couldn’t see them from the ground, but looking down from above, I was amazed at how full my gutters were. I began working my way around the house, removing leaves and debris. Now that all channels are clear, I expect to look out during the next downpour and see water diverting properly.
Sometimes what we don’t see really can hurt us. This is spot-on in many contexts; but in organizations, one of the places this truly becomes an issue is within the context of tacit rules. We do not use the word tacit too often in daily conversation. Tacit means “understood or implied without being stated”.
By contrast, a formal rule may be: “All employees must arrive no later than 8 a.m.” Formal rules are almost always codified via policy or procedure. Tacit rules, on the other hand, are not written down, but they do affect our behavior. For instance, I assume you do not work for an organization that has codified shaking someone’s hand when meeting him or her for the first time. In our culture, however, it is understood that a customary greeting is shaking someone’s hand as a proper means of introduction. Such behavior is simply understood as acceptable. In that context, a tacit rule can be a good thing.
However, tacit rules can also be a bad thing. When it becomes understood or implied that we are rude to customers, when unethical behaviors become the norm, when crude conversations are “just the way it is”, when setting someone up for failure motivates more than equipping someone to succeed… you get the idea.
When it comes to “seeing” tacit rules, we may need to change our perspective. Do you only listen to one group? Do you only seek counsel from one person? Do you always take the side of one group of employees? If so, you could be contributing to a tacit rules culture that is clogging your system and may ultimately do a lot of damage.
Think about walking several miles in the shoes of multiple perspectives. When it came to my gutters, I couldn’t see the system issue until I changed the way I looked at the system. When it comes to tacit rules, a perspective change just may revolutionize the way you do business.