My husband and I have a blind cat who needs eye drops twice a day. Sometimes he’s home to give her eye drops. Sometimes I am. But it has become a chore that we alternate between ourselves, without any particular assigned schedule between the two of us.
One day when I got home, I took one look at our squinting calico and remarked to my husband:
“Damn. I didn’t give her drops this morning, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I didn’t either.”
“Yeah,” I continued. “But I was the last one to leave for work this morning, and I kind of feel like it’s the last person’s out responsibility to give her drops, right?”
“Oh, that’s absolutely the rule.”
We laughed and carried on. For months, we’d been implicitly following a script that we’d never vocalized out loud, but a shared responsibility that we had simply intuited between us.
This is what I mean when I’m referring to unspoken house rules. And I think they are a very important part of any effective culture or team.
House rules at work
At work, these sort of unspoken rules exist all the time.
Maybe you wait to see if the most senior person CC’ed on an email will respond first. Maybe the person who leaves last turns off the lights and locks up. Maybe it’s well understood (but never formally articulated) that on Fridays, you all order lunch in together, then leave a little bit early.
These unspoken rules add a “humm” to any relationship. It keeps it going consistently without interruption, and for the people whose behaviors helped to shape that norm, certain actions just go on “autopilot” mode.
We structure our meetings like this. We behave on email like that. We interact outside of the office in this other, particular way.
It can feel really nice to know exactly what to expect, without needing to expend any effort in explaining it.
The only problem is — teams change. New people join. Experienced people leave. And with each new arrival or departure, those unspoken house rules start to glitch up a little bit. For one, it’s hard to pick up on the subtleties of these communication nuances in any group. And then of course, there’s the matter that the new people might not all naturally fall into sync with the existing crew. If you’re focused on hiring a diverse team around you, then it’s likely that every additional person brings a separate worldview and set of perspectives that flings a few more feathers in the air each time.
What you get is communication chaos. Some people still play by the old rules. Others start new behaviors. This causes friction, rifts, and confusion. Over time, this might lead to missed cues, a feeling of being “left out” from the tribe, hurt feelings, or worse.
Is it possible to hedge against this?
Making your house rules accessible
One thing I’ve observed is that some companies are writing “inclusion communication guides” at work. They include a very basic rules or frameworks about the culture, and then maybe a few “tips” about how any employee, regardless of their background or seniority, can contribute toward fostering a more inclusive and open environment for everyone else.
I’ve also heard of people structuring 1-on-1 time to have “communication check-ins” with their colleagues or direct reports, asking basic communication questions very directly. This can be everything from the basic (“If I need to get in touch with you after work hours, would you prefer email or text?”) to the more nuanced (“How will I know when you don’t want to be interrupted?”).
It might feel overly academic to have these types of conversations with people that you’ve already worked alongside for months, or even years. But at the end of the day, at the very least, it provides the opening framework for a conversation to directly call out some of the unspoken stuff that may have inadvertently been causing friction in your relationship.
And not for nothing, even just having that conversation one time can save a lot of wasted time wondering.
Ever since my husband and I have verbally acknowledged the rule, “the last person to leave for the day gives the cat eye drops,” we’ve both spared ourselves from the daily debate and guaranteed that our cat stays healthy.
What are some of the unspoken house rules in your home or your company? What might calling these out a bit more deliberately do for the newer people in the room? What rules may need to be retired from the organization? I’d love to hear how other evolving cultures and teams think about this,