Unwritten rules within a workplace are often a last resort among employees who have no faith in their organization’s commitment to honesty, collaboration, and civility. They frequently develop in a work environment where self-awareness falters as a core competency, resulting in poor communication, a lack of support that stokes fears of retribution, and a perception of uninvolved or aloof leadership. Unspoken principles become a way by which team members almost instinctually protect their jobs within a company that culturally avoids self-examination. Such rules also rarely resolve the original problem: the reluctance to combine honest self-assessments with thoughtful, compassionate, and open communication. An unwritten rule is never the result of one individual’s Machiavellian scheming—instead, it is often silently codified over time, when workers no longer trust accountability between and within teams, among departments, and up and down the hierarchy.
A great example of this can be found in the recent Wall Street Journal article written about Ravi Saligram, the new CEO of Newell Brands Inc., hired to redirect the financially struggling global organization that owns many popular household brands, ranging from Rubbermaid and Elmer’s Glue to Yankee Candle. Saligram noticed employees had a pervasive fear of retribution in the workplace, leading to workarounds and unwritten rules driven by emotions rather than efficient responses to business challenges.
One anecdote he offers is revealing. The company was developing a new designer pen for sale in Europe. The unwritten rule, in this case, was that sales operations could not intrude on product development meetings. Workers did not have faith in the ability of the two departments to rewardingly, honestly, and constructively share intelligence in a project like this one. With communication essentially blocked between departments, the following occurred:
The product team spent months perfecting a posh case for the pen with the goal of wooing shoppers. The problem: European retailers don’t display cases alongside pens, so potential buyers would never see them. And the expense of the box also pushed up the price on the pen beyond what customers were typically willing to pay.
People involved in the project said, “If we’d only talked to each other, we could have avoided this.”
The unwritten rule itself was merely a signal of a larger problem. After interviewing employees over three months, Saligram began to understand that a fearful culture had taken hold at Newell—particularly since the acquisition of Jarden Corp. in 2016, which had created tremendous growing pains for the organization. Workers felt they faced excessive punishment for correctable mistakes, effectively stifling communication between departments, teams, tiers, and individuals. In the article, Saligram says:
A lot of people’s behaviors were about survival and keeping their heads down. You can’t have that kind of atmosphere. You have to give them freedom and security that you’re not going to chop their head off if they do something wrong.
In the case of the pen, the superfluous case design arose directly from the sales operations team’s fear of stepping on the toes of product development. Rather than facing the reality that their departments were interdependent—an assessment that would require product development team members’ honest self-appraisal of their limitations—they chose to remain separate and uncooperative. There were probably many examples of similar gaps in communication that limited information gathering among various projects, damaging morale and leading to wasteful costs.
Saligram’s amiable yet blunt “no a**holes” mission at Newell, combined with an open-door policy and willingness to both receive and incorporate feedback, has wrought measurable improvements. In the last two quarters, sales have risen more than 20 percent, a marked gain after several years of decline. The company’s share price is up 33 percent since Saligram took the helm. His phrasing may seem crude, but it sends a signal that to be welcome at Newell, people must engage in honest self-examination, collaboration, and civility. He treats employees as adults deserving of respect and consideration, and he expects them to treat each other respectfully as well.
Those who make an earnest effort to own mistakes, share information, and communicate respectfully will be rewarded rather than punished in this revitalized workplace culture. With better communication founded on self-awareness and civility, quiet maneuvering behind closed doors becomes unnecessary. Freed from fear and survival tactics, employees can be more creative and productive, bolstering both morale and the bottom line.