Does Your Workplace Have UGRs?

November 4, 2020

Most of us have been to a meeting where, upon conclusion, the real meetings begin. Typically, people reconvene in smaller groups to canvass a range of issues that can include displeasure at a decision that has been made, lamenting the attitudes of one or more people who were at the meeting, or planning a strategy to work around a particular outcome.

It’s often the case that those most vocal after the meeting are least likely to have spoken up during the meeting.

So what’s causing this?

We propose that it is the UGRs – or unwritten ground rules – that drive people’s behaviour in organisations. UGRs are defined as people’s perceptions of ‘this is the way we do things around here’.

Sample UGRs we have observed in the workplace include:

  • At our meetings it isn’t worth complaining as we know nothing will get done
  • The only time anyone gets spoken to by the boss is when something is wrong
  • The company talks about the importance of service, but we know they don’t really mean it, so we don’t have to worry about it

UGRs such as these drive people’s behaviour yet paradoxically, they are seldom talked about openly. It is the UGRs in a company that constitute its culture.

Because UGRs are seldom talked about openly, there is a very real risk that their existence can be left to chance. Evidence of this can be seen in corridor talk such as ‘If only Bob would leave, we’d be OK’, or ‘We’re so lucky to have a great team’.

Leaders either cause or allow UGRs to exist. In staying silent when party to a conversation where people are sharing negative gossip about another employee, a leader is sanctioning a UGRs such as ‘Around here, it’s OK to talk badly about people in their absence’. A leader who talks badly about complaining customers is causing a UGRs such as ‘Around here, complaining customers aren’t to be treated seriously’.

At the very least, leaders need to be aware of the UGRs they are accepting or creating. Even better, they need to become aware of the prevailing UGRs with a view to shifting the culture to ensure the organisation’s future success.

How can leaders tune-in to the prevailing UGRs? One approach – called a UGRs Stock Take – invites people to complete the sentence to what we call ‘lead-in sentences’ linked to cultural attributes important to the organisation’s future success.

In a medical supplies company we worked with, here are some of the responses we received to the lead-in sentence: Around here, being open and honest gets you…

  • Frowned upon. They say they want to hear it, but if it’s negative, it is not welcomed
  • Let’s just say it doesn’t help you make friends. Some people take it personally and backstab. Not often are we heard. Not everyone is honest and some actually border on underhanded.
  • Into trouble at times. You have to play the game to get ahead!

The following are from people in the same company in response to a lead-in sentence of: Around here, when an internal customer complains…

  • It has to be fixed immediately. Unfortunately, internal customers do not have patient outcomes in the forefront of their mind.
  • Generally complain about them and say they don’t understand what we do
  • People don’t want to listen, unless it’s sales.

It can be argued that leaving culture to chance is an abrogation of leadership responsibility given the impact that culture has on individual and collective performance. That means the UGRs within an organisations need to be focused upon.

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