How are you about enforcing and following rules with the people who work for you? Do they listen to you or respect you for toeing the line with them?

A word of caution –  they may be testing you and if you are not careful – what is brewing underneath the surface may come back to bite you.

It happens every day. Employees recognize there are written rules, but the real rules are the silent ones. It might be called “the code” or think of it as the real way things work around here.

The subculture holds a lot of power. Ignoring it can be a big mistake.

Managers walking into a new situation are often susceptible to this trap. Jessica is a store manager who has been with the company for several years.

She is known as a company girl. In her role, she believes that enforcing the rules will be seen as a positive trait with her superiors.

It is common that managers move every couple of years to a new store location. One of the reasons managers move is for their personal development – to get experiences with new people and situations.

Conversely, if a store is having trouble, senior management might send someone in to straighten out a dysfunctional team.

Sometimes the manager gets marching orders such as: instill some discipline and do it immediately. The expectation is that coming in strong will miraculously change what is wrong.

At first, Jessica thinks she is being successful with her team by providing rules and tight boundaries. In truth, the employees are testing how far they can push her. They want to know how she will react in different situations such as:

  • Following procedures
  • Using the chain of command
  • Discipline
  • Adhering to the employee handbook
  • Handling conflict
  • Playing favorites
  • Espousing corporate policies
  • Making exceptions
  • Keeping her cool
  • Having personal relationships
  • Keeping promises
  • Holding confidences

Once the group figures out where her “hot” buttons (things that set someone off quickly) are they can manipulate Jessica more effectively.

The fatal flaw Jessica makes is assuming that every store or team has the same culture. The parent company’s rules and philosophies are not enough to create a common culture in different locations.

Not knowing the unwritten rules got in the way of her being effective within this organization.

So how can you be more successful when you go into a new organization?

Avoid being the hard-ass or enforcer – at least initially. This is an effective strategic diversion tactic. People will not open up to someone who is seen as inflexible. Sometimes it better not to let people figure you out so quickly – it also minimizes exposing your hot buttons. Use this time to take notes about what kind of behavior trends you see in individuals or small groups.

Don’t be afraid to take action. You do not want to be seen as wimp. If someone does something that is illegal or demands an immediate discharge take decisive action.

Ask yourself if the action you are taking is a fighting an inconsequential battle or integral to the long term success of the organization. Ultimately, you want to win the war and that requires a better understanding of the culture.

Listen and observe. Ask questions rather then tell people what to do. Concentrate on why the behavior exists vs. trying to fix it right away. Understand why they do what they do and how they resolve problems they face at work. Figure out what is important and what is a priority for them.

Learn about the unwritten rules. This is the code we talked about earlier. The unspoken rules may be driven by the employees or management and are probably different from the corporate policies.

You may get lucky and find someone who shares them with you. If not, rely on the listen and observe approach to figure what the practices are in the organization.

Find the root cause. Is the behavior systemic or random? Is one person causing the problems or do cliques control more than they should in the organization?

Make a plan. Once you figure out 1) what the unwritten rules are 2) why the rules exist 3) who is involved and 4) how the rules affect the organization, you are in a position to make a plan.

Just remember – battles are quickly forgotten and winning over the organization carries long term results.