Spinning Your Wheels? It could be because of Unwritten Ground Rules

My bookshelves are full of books on how to build healthy workplace cultures, where people and performance thrive. However keep I find myself coming back to Steve Simpson’s UGR framework.

The more I work with this simple approach to cultural transformation, the more I am convinced of its ability to ‘cut-through the crap’ and facilitate courageous, construction conversations that get right to the heart of organisational culture.

Your culture is an invisible force that both propels and drags-down your performance. The key to creating a thriving, high performance culture is to ensure that there is way more propulsion than drag. 

UGR’s are people’s perceptions of ‘the way we do things around here’, inferred by actions that happen or fail to happen*.

UGR’s are rarely discussed, or even put into words, however they will trump your “official” organisational values or documented leadership behaviours every single time.

People learn UGR’s through*:

  • If and how employees talk to one another
  • How employees talk to customers
  • What employees say about customers behind closed doors
  • How employees talk when a manager is present, and what they say when that person walks away
  • What is talked about in the corridors immediately after a meeting
  • How a different point of view is handled within meetings
  • Whether people are encouraged to share their views
  • Whether people laugh, and what they laugh at

UGR’s can be positive or negative. Having spent two decades working in many different organisations, my experience is that negative UGR’s generally have a far greater impact on culture than positive UGR’s. Negative UGR’s can make it feel like you are spinning your wheels but not getting any real forward momentum.

Some examples of negative UGR’s that may sound disturbingly familiar include:

  • Around here, it is dangerous to be honest
  • Around here, it is dangerous to be honest
  • Around here, you should never expose your weaknesses, as this could be used against you in the future (one way to expose a weakness is by admitting that you don’t understand something)
  • Around here, leaders say that they care about customers, but they really just care about not screwing up and looking good in front of the Board
  • Around here, we love a good gossip, and the ‘juicer’ the information you are willing to share, the more social power you will have
  • Around here, action (any action) is much better than doing nothing
  • Around here, plenty of people come from the outside with great ideas, but they don’t really understand our business (we’re different) and if you stall their ideas long enough, they generally give up
  • Around here, you should never tell the full truth at an Executive Meeting and never ever at a Board Meeting

UGR’s can lurk just below the surface of your awareness and it often feels “politically incorrect” to say them out loud.

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Often, as a culture change consultant, when I do put the strong UGR’s that I have encountered into words, people say (with a look of both shock and excitement) “Who told you that?!”. My response is usually “about five different people, and they are all too scared to be named”.

The problem is of course, if you can’t talk about UGR’s, you can’t bring them out of the shadows and into the light – which means you can’t change them.

If negative UGR’s remain unspoken and unchallenged, they will continue to be a mysterious, hidden force that continues to create tremendous drag on your performance.

At their worst, strong negative UGR’s that contradict your “official” values or role objectives can make you feel like you are slowly going insane, leading to burn-out.

I have a friend who has been employed by a large organisation to shape and lead their Experience Transformation agenda. The CEO and the senior leaders she met during her interview and induction process said all the right things such as: “we know we must innovate”, “we are hungry for change and you have permission to challenge the status-quo” and “we know that the things that got us here won’t get us to where we want to be” .

However, progress was painfully slow and the constant cat-herding started to make her suspicious of a deeper truth – one that existed beneath what people were actually saying.

As she began to tune into what was not being said, trusted her instinct and had some more honest conversations – a big, powerful cluster of UGR’s emerged .

It was: “Around here the primary currency is knowing your place and showing respect towards the CEO and his inner circle. Respect means demonstrating unwavering subservience, and never question the CEO’s superior judgement and intelligence. Small innovations will be tolerated, as long as they don’t threated the current power structures. Around here, there is only permission to tinker around the edges of the things that really matter.”

Once she saw this UGR in the full light, everything made sense. Not surprisingly, my friend made her peace with tinkering for 18 months and then took her talents elsewhere.

The first step in working with UGR’s is finding the courage to put them into words and test them with your colleagues. By amplifying the bright spots and re-writing the UGR’s that create the most drag, you can design a healthy, high-performance culture.

Would you like to learn more about the work I do to help courageous leaders create cultures that inspired heart-count and enable people and performance to thrive? You can find more information here.

You can learn more about Steve’s great work on UGR’s here.

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