Unspoken rule

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Unspoken rules are behavioral constraints imposed in organizations or societies that are not voiced or written down. They usually exist in unspoken and unwritten format because they form a part of the logical argument or course of action implied by tacit assumptions. Examples involving unspoken rules include unwritten and unofficial organizational hierarchies, organizational culture, and acceptable behavioral norms governing interactions between organizational members.

For example, the captain of a ship is always expected to be the last to evacuate it in a disaster. Or, as Vince Waldron wrote, "A pet, once named, instantly becomes an inseparable member of the family."[1]

Employment and discrimination[edit]

In the workplace, unspoken rules can have a significant impact on one’s job satisfaction, advancement opportunities, and career trajectory.

In sports, Scottish football club, Rangers until 1989 had an unwritten rule of not signing any player who was openly Catholic.[2] Yorkshire County Cricket Club also historically had an unwritten rule that cricketers could only play for them if they were born within the historical county boundaries of Yorkshire.[3]


Since the mid-1980s, a set of widely applied concepts used to reveal the hidden inner workings of organizations and society have commonly been referred to as 'unwritten rules'.[4][5][6][7] Devised by Peter Scott-Morgan[8][9][10] (and popularized by a best-selling business book in 1994 called The Unwritten Rules of the Game),[11] these concepts have been used as the theoretical framework for a variety of academic research projects across different countries,[12][13][14] and are cited in numerous academic papers,[15][16][17][18] scholarly books,[19][20] as well as specialist postings on the internet.[21][22][23] A professor at London Business School writes that in 1985 she became intrigued by these ideas when she first met Scott-Morgan "who at that time was beginning to develop a process which he called 'the unwritten rules of the game'."[24]

This usage of the term 'unwritten rules' has been incorporated into a range of management thinking[4][6][7] and is also highlighted in various business books[24][25][26][27][28] as well as business-related posts on the internet.[29][30][31] In addition, several management consultancies apply Unwritten Rules concepts.[5][8][32][33][34][35] The international management consultancy Arthur D. Little has revealed that from the mid-1990s conducting an Unwritten Rules assignment became something of a rite of passage amongst its 3000 consultants – on the theory that “once you’ve fed [the sensitive results] back to a CEO … and survived … then you can do anything.”[36] There are numerous accounts of organizations that have applied Unwritten Rules methodologies, such as Citibank,[37] Daimler-Benz,[38] Hewlett-Packard,[15] Lloyds TSB,[18] the UK National Health Service,[39] Philips Consumer Electronics,[34] and the Argentinian national oil company YPF.[40] The former-head of Process Review at British Petroleum has published that in 1992 his corporation's "search for best practice in the consulting world led to my meeting Peter Scott-Morgan and learning of his insights into understanding – and changing – the Unwritten Rules of the Game."[41] He then describes how BP tested, and became convinced of, the validity of Scott-Morgan's technique and went on to apply it in several major operating centers. There are specific accounts of its early use at BP's Wytch Farm oilfield.[26][41]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Vince Waldron, The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book, Hal Leonard, 2001, p. 176.
  2. ^ http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2009/jul/10/maurice-mo-johnston-rangers-celtic
  3. ^ http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/cricket/new-yorkshire-ready-to-restore-forgotten-glories-676410.html
  4. ^ a b "Strategic Denial: Unwritten Rules and Wishful Thinking", Global Strategies Project Commentaries from Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, Union of International Associations.
  5. ^ a b Haserot, Phyllis Weiss. "How to Change Unwritten Rules", Practice Development Counsel website, from original article in The New York Law Journal, 25 May 1999.
  6. ^ a b "Culture Matters", Bridge the Gap Between "Knowing" and "Doing", p. 3. Deloitte, 2011.
  7. ^ a b "What Makes an Organization Effective?", p. 3, Points of View, Avocet Organizational Performance Inc.
  8. ^ a b Capek, Frank "Why Customer Experience Initiatives Fail?, Customer Innovations website, 31 October 2007.
  9. ^ Dr. Peter Scott-Morgan. Speaker Profiles. Celebrity Speakers website.
  10. ^ The Hidden Logic of Business Performance. Boardroom Imperative, The Concours Group, 2004.
  11. ^ Scott-Morgan, Peter (1994). The Unwritten Rules of the Game: Master Them, Shatter Them, and Break Through the Barriers to Organizational Change. McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-07-057075-2
  12. ^ McGovern, Patrick (1995) "Learning from the Gurus: Managers' Responses to The Unwritten rules of the Game, Business Strategy Review, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp. 13-25. 23 September 1995.
  13. ^ Background Boudewijns & Roemen Groep corporate website
  14. ^ Sharpe, Jason et al. (2011) "Re-engineering Unwritten Rules: An Ethnographic Study of an Intra-Organizational Ecology", Centre for Facilities Management Development, Sheffield Hallam University.
  15. ^ a b McGovern, Patrick et al. (1997) "Human Resource Management On the Line? Human Resource Management Journal, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp. 12-29, July 1997.
  16. ^ Springer, Jon (2003) "Shifting the Unwritten Rules of Organizational Behavior The Systems Thinker, Volume 14, Number 3, pp. 6-7. Pegasus Communications, April 2003.
  17. ^ Price, Ilfryn (1995) "Organisational Memetics?: Organisational Learning as a Selection Process" Management Learning, Volume 26, Number 3, pp. 299-318.
  18. ^ a b Gratton, Lynda et al. "Linking Individual Performance to Business Strategy: The People Process Model" Human Resource Management, Volume 38, Number 1, pp. 17-31, Spring 1999.
  19. ^ Cross, Robert et al. (2004). The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations. Harvard Business Review Press. ISBN 978 1591392705
  20. ^ Flood, Patrick et al. (Eds.) (2000). Managing Strategy Implementation. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-21766-4
  21. ^ Bellinger, Gene. "The Unwritten Rules: The Way Things Really Work" Systems Thinking website, posted 2004.
  22. ^ Managing People Exam, Section A, Question 2, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 4 May 2005.
  23. ^ Herold, Max. "Companies by Neurological Levels" Integrated SocioPsychology website, 28 September 2002.
  24. ^ a b Gratton, Lynda (2000). Living Strategy: Putting People at the Heart of Corporate Purpose, p. 48. Prentice Hall. ISBN 0 273 65015 7
  25. ^ De Flander, Jeroen (2010). "About the Experts", Strategy Execution Heroes: Business Strategy Implementation and Strategic Management Demystified, p. viii. The Performance Factory. ISBN 978 908148731 3
  26. ^ a b Price, If et al. (1998). Shifting the Patterns: Breaching the Memetic Codes of Corporate Performance, pp. 84-91. Management Books 2000. ISBN 1 85252 253 4
  27. ^ Floyd, Chris (1997). Managing Technology for Corporate Success, pp. 197-8 and 223. Gower. ISBN 0 566 07991 7
  28. ^ Erickson, Tamara (2008). Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work, pp. 240-3. Harvard Business School Press. ISBN 978 1422120606
  29. ^ Boulton, Charles. "Knowing the Unwritten Rules Can Improve Service Delivery and Cut Costs", PublicNet website about management and the public sector, 26 March 2010.
  30. ^ "Cryptonomics" Experience Mind website, 31 October 2007.
  31. ^ Christie, Lisa. "Unwritten Rules Determine Behavior", Creative Leadership Coaching website, 27 April 2008.
  32. ^ "Driving Safety Culture: Identification of Leadership Qualities for Effective Safety Management", Final Report to Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Arthur D. Little, October 2004.
  33. ^ "Understanding the unwritten rules of the game" The People Side of Risk Intelligence: Aligning Talent and Risk Management, p.17, Risk Intelligence Series, Issue 18. Deloitte, 2010.
  34. ^ a b Camrass, Roger "Big Change – Beware the Unwritten Rules!", Business Leaders CIO Blog, 4 August 2011
  35. ^ "About delta 5", delta 5 Dutch consulting services website.
  36. ^ Eagar, Rick (2006). "A brief history of Arthur D Little" Prism / 120 years of Arthur D. Little p. 34. Arthur D. Little.
  37. ^ Gratton, Lynda et al. (1999). Strategic Human Resource Management: Corporate Rhetoric and Human Reality, Acknowledgements section. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978 0198782032
  38. ^ Bergmann, Karin (1998). "Knowledge Management at Daimler-Benz's Passenger-Car Division, Prism, Issue 2, 1998. Arthur D. Little.
  39. ^ Clark, Liz (1999). "Multi-Skilling for Success", Facilities, Volume 17, Issue 7/8, pp. 272-9.
  40. ^ Ross, Christopher (1994). "Recreating the Argentine National Oil Company: A Paradigm for Privatisation" Prism, Issue 2, 1994. Arthur D. Little
  41. ^ a b Price, Ifryn (1993). "Aligning People and Processes During Business-Focused Change in BP Exploration", Prism, Issue 4, 1993. Arthur D. Little