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Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

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Articles: Influence, Relationship & Human Performance Skills Archives

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How to Change Unwritten Rules

Whether a firm functions in a relatively ad hoc manner or it has more centralized management with many formal rules, a law firm, as any organization, is also run by unwritten rules. While these can be helpful, they can also be a serious obstacle to achieving stated objectives. An organization must identify them and take them seriously because they frequently conflict with written rules and policies for change and improvement.

These unwritten rules really drive individual behavior because their existence means people have identified what it is in their self interest to do or not to do regardless of stated firm objectives. Unwritten rules infiltrate every aspect of an organization, affecting how to get assigned to the most desirable projects, who to be seen with, how to get promoted and what financial indicators and performance attributes are important to firm management.

Unwritten rules have been defined as “sensible ways to act given written rules and top management's behavior.” So firm leaders and managers would be wise to assess whether people are being rewarded more highly, more directly and more quickly by ignoring the written (or spoken) rules and following some other set rather than the officially articulated ones. What are their motivators and triggers (conditions people think they need to satisfy in order to get what they want)?

Are the lawyers in your firm erratic about attending meetings that are called important to the partnership or to marketing? Do they promise to carry out an assignment for the firm or their practice group and not even come close to meeting their deadlines? Do they use a different process to get the work out than the seemingly logical one firm managers have designed? The problem may be that there is no disincentive for neglecting commitments in favor of a preferred use of time or incentive for the officially desirable behavior. They may view a marketing committee and their plans as not powerful, not fully supported by firm leadership. Individual agendas and work ethics may get in the way of efficiently pursuing the straightest production path.

Identifying the unwritten rules can be helpful even if the rules themselves are producing negative results. They can tell firm managers how to align their goals with reality, or tell them it is time to change the reality because it conflicts with goals. The latter is useful in itself. You may have to change the current reality to get things done, to build loyalty to the firm, to facilitate teamwork.

How do you identify unwritten rules? By observing work flow. By talking to people at all levels in the organization. By listening to gripes from associates, secretaries and administrators. By talking to people who are leaving the firm. Even by talking to headhunters.

Unwritten rules frequently come from signals sent by the way management behaves – what gets attention, what gets rewarded, who gets plum assignments and promotions. Reactions to written rules or policies also can generate unwritten rules. It is usually not effective to ask directly what the unwritten rules are because they involve things people fear or make them uncomfortable. To deal with them, if they are having a negative effect, first identify a specific performance problem.

The way to find the unwritten rules that are causing the behaviors that result in the performance problem is to talk to people who can clue you in to motivations and things that trigger the negative behaviors. This is what management consultants call an “appraisal.” In his book, THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF THE GAME, (Arthur D. Little, Inc.), Peter Scott-Morgan describes an extensive interviewing process (teams of two interviewers, a minimum of 14 two-hour interviews spread out over a week). However, his frame of reference is probably large corporations with many layers of management. For a law firm or law department, the process can be simplified if the appraisal is focused on one problem within a group that shares the same unwritten rules.

It will be necessary to interview people on various levels to get an accurate “fix” on the situation, for example partners, associates, secretaries, administrative personnel. The interviewers should be good listeners, capable of being objective. They should not be individuals who work with the people to be interviewed on a day-to-day basis; they can be neutral third parties from outside the firm. The interviewees should be informed in advance about the process, with explanations about unwritten rules and how they can detract from a productive working environment and successful business.

The first set of interviews, usually with the more senior people involved, should be aimed at understanding the problem and its negative effects on performance. The interviews following will be more focused on identifying the unwritten rules. These will emerge if you can get people talking freely in answer to open-ended questions. (If a second interviewer is present, he or she can take notes and lend support that builds rapport.) It is important not to appear judgmental and to assure that their remarks will not be attributed to them.

The specific questions to ask will depend on the interviewer's understanding of the problem, and follow up questions will emerge from responses as well as information gleaned from previous interviews. A general opening might be “We're trying to get a feeling for what you think is important, particularly in light of.....? How does the system work?.... Who are the most important people when it comes to ....? What drives people here?... Forgetting what others think, what's most important to you?

Remember to inject silent pauses. Give people plenty of time to elaborate on their initial thoughts. Empathize and be encouraging. Try to paraphrase when you think you've elicited a significant thought or feeling. Be patient, calm and a good listener. Be aware that the appraisal process may uncover positive unwritten rules that the firm will want to reinforce. Example: “It is important to be seen as a contributor to whatever activities management vocally supports.” This unwritten rule points up the value of nonfinancial recognition.

After five or more interviews, patterns and consensus on various issues will appear. Analyze the responses and make lists of: 1) the unwritten rules; and 2) the side effects of the rules (positive or negative). The latter will highlight some of the problems. For the next set of interviews, focus on cause and effect and why the unwritten rules cause problems.

After the findings are presented (in written and oral form), the findings must be used to help change some of the rules and resulting behaviors. The period right after presentation of the findings is the hardest because constructive as they are intended to be, some people prefer not to hear the truth. Let a few days pass, but not long. Momentum must be maintained; no one should get the impression that the exercise was done, and now the matter will be dropped.

To start to fix the problem, a meeting of the senior managers with the authority and ability to decide on and implement change is necessary. Based on the information from the appraisal, rank the perceived risks and opportunities for the firm. Then agree on what behaviors should replace the ones that are causing the problem. What would desired behavior look like and where/how would it be most useful? For example, in changing turf protection to cooperation, where is it most valuable? Does the problem behavior always have negative effects? Next, determine the actions needed to eliminate the undesirable behaviors and barriers to better performance. Implement those actions, new rules or policies. Six months later, do a shorter, follow up appraisal to see if the unwritten rules have changed as intended. Are there new side effects that must be dealt with?

While virtually any firm will have unwritten rules with some negative consequences, some of the worst problems are bound to arise after mergers or acquisitions when the two firm cultures have different or conflicting unwritten rules. A dominant culture has to exert itself. The method described in this article can help to sort things out.


© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 1999.

This article appeared in The New York Law Journal, Tuesday, May 25, 1999.