The Implied Rules

Since I’m spending most of my time these days in an office environment that, understandably but unfortunately, is where most of my thoughts are directed.

And this week I spent a lot of time thinking about the implied rules of a work environment.  They’re the rules no one actually puts in your job description.  The rules that will never show up in any performance review.  But the ones you MUST meet if you’re going to succeed.

Making things even worse, sometimes the implied rules are in exact contradiction to what your performance review says.

So, how does that work?  How do you know what those rules are?  What makes me think I’m not completely full of it and just justifying my own bad behaviors?

In a salaried job, it often comes down to promotions and pay.

Throughout my career at my first employer I was told I needed to play nicer with others.  And I did need to do so.  Because my approach to work was to get things done.  And, in an environment where people were allowed to continue on for years as dead weight that clogged the flow of work, I sometimes worked around people or over people.

Especially people who took two hours to discuss every decision and then still couldn’t make up their mind.

I’m not proud of that.  I would’ve loved to have the luxury of time to make everyone comfortable with everything.

But, what I am proud of is the fact that I generally delivered products on time and at a level of performance that exceeded expectations.

The way to do that, unfortunately, was to work around or over the people who would’ve brought the project down.

So, every year my performance review said great things about my projects and then told me to play better with others.  And then I was awarded a bonus that was clearly above the average.  Or promoted.  Or given a hefty raise.

That was that one particular work environment.  Sometimes the rules are that you must play nice above all else.  In those environments, performing amazing work matters less than getting along.

I once worked at an employer where everyone was expected to discuss the fact that they were on a diet and to pray at lunch.

No joke.

You could not be on a diet and not pray.  But then you were other.  You didn’t fit with the culture.  And lack of fit with the culture is generally how people get tripped up at work.

It’s not a matter of changing your communication and work style.  It’s a matter of finding an environment that fits with your style.

And of knowing when you’ve changed to the point that you can no longer succeed.

I’ve been working with the same company for seven years now.  And I’ve changed.  To the point where I tried to terminate my contract with them because I knew I was no longer going to meet their expectations.

Whereas before I would’ve been working ten-hour days and staying available until my boss was done for the day (implied rules), now I leave after eight hours of work and don’t check e-mail or voicemail.  I have a puppy to take care of and that matters more to me than meeting those expectations.

And I can feel the disconnect.  It’s a bit like having a rock in your shoe.

I know what it takes to succeed in this environment.  But I’m no longer willing to do so.

My client is never going to tell me that I’m not meeting their rules.  I doubt my client even knows that they have those rules.

And they’re not going to fire me tomorrow for not meeting them.  (Although I’d be okay with it if they did.)

But that feeling of dissatisfaction is going to grow over time until it becomes too much and they decide that I don’t provide the service they expect.

It won’t be anything specific that they can point to.  They’ll just use me less until they don’t use me at all.

So, if you’re trying to figure out what the implied rules in your environment are, look at what makes your boss or co-workers happy.  Look at what makes them unhappy.  Look at who gets promoted.  Or who gets the best assignments.  Look at the non-assigned tasks you’re asked to do.  (Sign a birthday card?  Go to lunch on Fridays?  Or happy hour on Thursdays?  Volunteer for the company 5K charity run?)

And then decide if you can do more of what people want and less of what they don’t want.

I, for example, know I don’t do well in an environment where I’m expected to say, “Yes, sir” and “Right away, sir” and never voice an opinion.  Not me.

I also don’t do well in a free-wheeling party environment where you’re expected to get puke drunk at the company party and pass out.

Now.  To tie this back to writing.

Readers are the same way.  There are implied rules to telling different groups of readers stories.  There are ways readers believe things should work.  And the further you get from those implied rules, the more you’re going to make your readers uncomfortable.  The less willing they’ll be to pick up your next story.

(Now, some readers want to be made uncomfortable.  They want different.  Then you have to be careful to never let them be comfortable.  To never be predictable.)

You have to know who you’re writing for and meet that expectation.  Implied or otherwise.

At least that’s what I think.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?



About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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