Don’t wear flip flops. That was one of many rules outlined in the employee handbook we received when we first started at Prosek. We also aren’t allowed to harass or threaten our co-workers or come to work smelling bad as “good personal hygiene is expected.” Those are all easy enough rules to follow.
But remembering to apply deodorant and hiding your flip flops is hardly going to put your career on the fast track. As we learned earlier this week, there are other rules, “unwritten rules,” which are the key to career success.
We attended the British American Business’ Women's Forum hosted by KPMG and based on research conducted by Catalyst. The event consisted of a panel discussion on the unwritten rules for career advancement. The panel was made up of a group of successful women: Sarah Diamond, General Manager of Global Consulting Services at IBM; Kelly Watson, Managing Partner at KPMG; Laura Sabattini PhD, Senior Director of Research at Catalyst; and Amanda Drury, Anchor on CNBC.
According to Catalyst the term “unwritten rules” is generally used to describe unspoken workplace norms and behaviors that are necessary to success within an organization, but that are not communicated as consistently or explicitly as formalized work competencies are. Often, these behaviors are viewed as “what successful employees should do.”
Some of the rules are classic to business advancement 101, such as do good work, find the right mentor and build a professional network. Others were equally as important but less popular to admit, such as playing office politics, working long hours and never leaving the office before your boss.
Here is a full list of the rules, which were uncovered by Catalyst's research and supported by the panel’s personal experience:
- Networking and building relationships
- Finding ways to become visible
- Play politics and lobby for yourself and your work
- Communicate effectively and ask for lots of feedback
- Perform well, produce results
- Find a mentor, coach, sponsor
- Work long hours
- Develop a good career plan
The unwritten rules might be universal, but it is important to apply them to your own personality and work style or your efforts will appear disingenuous. For example, “effectively” in the rule “communicating effectively” can be interpreted many ways. If your personal style is to be more buttoned up and reserved, there is no need to get loud and rowdy in meetings. And conversely if you are the more exuberant type, find ways to make it work to your advantage.
The study also found that certain skills and characteristics were viewed more favorably when it comes to promotional opportunities. These include being a team player and working well with others, fitting in well the organizational culture and exhibiting “agentic” qualities. More commonly, agentic characteristics, e.g., independent, rational and non-emotional, were associated with successful workers more so than “communal” qualities, e.g., friendly, likable and people-oriented.
Of course, exhibiting the appropriate balance of agentic and communal qualities is a must. Qualities vary from company to company and industry to industry, so again when applying the unwritten rules it is important that you consider, adjust and amend them to align with your organization. For example, overly assertive and dominant behaviors within one work environment may be respected, in say the legal field, while in others those qualities may be viewed as overly aggressive.
The bottom line: These rules provide a generic "roadmap" for career advancement. They represent the pieces of your career puzzle, and it’s up to you to determine how they fit.