The Unwritten Rules: Understanding Unspoken Workplace Norms, Behavior and Culture

The purpose of a for-profit business is to make money for its shareholders. Right? Therefore, it stands to reason that those who help increase the bottom line should rise higher and earn more than those who don’t. If it actually worked this way, the business environment would be a very objective meritocracy. But it doesn’t.

Promotions, raises, and entry into the executive suite are based on many factors that are often difficult to quantify. Some people think the most important of these factors is education, but if academic credentials (which women garner at a higher rate than men these days) were the key to upward mobility, women would be running the world – or at least the U.S. Since we’re not, the key to success must be something else.

That “something else” is what most men know and many women don’t: the unwritten rules of business. Men are familiar with the requirements for success because they have been groomed for it since childhood. From the time they are young, sons are included in age-old rituals designed by and for males. Most girls are not. At golf courses across the country, fathers play a few holes in the early evening with their young sons but rarely with their daughters. Until recently, boys’ sports teams commanded much more attention than girls’. And when was the last time you heard of a father taking his daughter hunting? These rituals are part of the fundamental, non-academic training that is a prerequisite for understanding the games that are played in the workplace.

Women who think the key to getting ahead is to do their jobs well and even to work above and beyond what is expected of them are missing the complete landscape of the business world.

A whole host of contests and competitions is being played around them. These games may have little impact on the company from a financial standpoint, but they improve the status of those who participate in them. Most men understand and know how to use this informal system. Most women do not.

The secret code of business is not that complex. However, it seems perplexing to many women because it is inspired by the male way of doing things. Women who have reached the top positions in business have cracked the code. These female leaders have developed their own playbooks for achievement. These women aren’t more “masculine” and don’t try to be one of the guys. But they follow (or at least understand) the unspoken behavior and norms that are condoned in the work environment and that contribute to the achievement of their business goals, however far-reaching those goals may be.

One of our keys to success as women is to learn the unwritten rules. If more of us truly come to know what goes on in the workplace, perhaps we can take a hammer to the glass that’s been hanging over our heads for much too long.

By Erin Wolf

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