Unwritten rules?

Working with graduate students in higher education is a satisfying experience, and it is rewarding to watch their personal growth as they progress through their program of study—once a student is in our program, I see it as my job to provide guidance and make sure they don’t get stuck. It is upsetting to the student, but also to me when they get stuck or leave the program because they fail to follow a documented process. Even though there may be a breakdown in the process, individuals are responsible for becoming knowledgeable about the requirements that impact them. But what about undocumented procedures or “rules?” I struggled this week to resolve a complicated issue and part of the problem—I figured out at the end of the process—was that I did not have all the information. There were unwritten rules.

At the height of my frustration, I thought this was a problem only found in academics; however, after giving myself time to reflect, I realize it is a problem in industry settings as well.

So my question is why? Why do we have unwritten rules?

Of course, it could be that there are no rules, just guidelines that are intended to be flexible based on the situation. This distinction is an important point. Guidelines provide flexibility for both parties in a negotiation which may not be the case with rules. Until it is written down, I would argue any process is just a guideline and negotiation is an option.

Where the rules are documented, there may be unwritten exceptions—situations that warrant deviation from the normal process. Unwritten exceptions recognize that managers (or administrators) encounter problems that deserve consideration based on the merits of the case. But why are they unwritten?

I think this is an issue of trust. Do you trust people not to abuse the exceptions? In organizations that work with high levels of trust, a defined process that evaluates exceptions remove the possibility of arbitrary application or favoritism.

Documenting exceptions provides a level of transparency and levels the playing field for those not inclined to challenge the status quo. Individuals who are reluctant to ask the question “why?” effectively lose out on options that are available to those willing to test the system. I doubt this the intent, but it can be the result.

As managers, we have a choice on how we set up the rules. I would argue that we should write them down and strive for a transparent and fair process.

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