Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What Unwritten Rules Are You Creating at Work?

Are you unintentionally creating unrealistic expectations and culture?

Key points

  • Recognize that the expectations placed on you as a leader are larger than on those below you.
  • If you don't specifically state your expectations, employees will try and read between the lines.
  • Be explicit about how and when work can be completed.
  • Give employees as much autonomy as possible to do their work in a way that works for them.
Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels
Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels

Do as I say, not as I do.

As a leader, you have greater responsibilities and accountabilities than those below you. The expectations placed on you are higher. That's why you have a whole team to help you achieve your goals. At times, you may ask employees to devote a similar level of effort as you to meet a deadline. But for the majority of the time, each person is a puzzle piece of your portfolio jigsaw.

However, while you work toward your responsibilities and accountabilities, you are role-modeling behavior of how to achieve goals. Unless you specifically state that your expectations are different for employees, they will likely try to meet your standards. Your work ethic sets the norms (unwritten rules) for how others show up at work.

Unwritten rules and hidden expectations

Many employees come into an organization and gauge what the workplace culture is from observation rather than from what they're told. They see whether people are sending emails after hours, whether people are green/available throughout the day, whether competition is a more common strategy than collaboration, etc. It's important to be intentional and explicit about:

  • Whether people can work flexibly.

  • Whether there are core hours during which everyone is expected to be available.

  • How employees can adjust their work schedules (e.g., independently or through approval).

  • Availability expectations (e.g., by phone, in-person).

  • Whether employees can decline meetings if they are working on higher-priority projects.

  • Are employees expected to check in while on vacation? Or is there an escalation point where they would be contacted?

Being explicit can help you shape or align the culture to what works best for the team and the business.

Clarity and fairness

In setting expectations, it's not just about how people work but what people are working on. As a manager, your job is to manage the workload of your employees to ensure it's fair and balanced. Start by ensuring employees' skills are aligned with the job requirements. And if they aren't, ask yourself, what steps can you take to close the gaps? Use the resources you have for this, as well as working with your talent/HR business partner.

Then, ask yourself whether you are delegating the right tasks to the right employees. Many times, leaders use their "star performer" as a point person for everything. This adds extra work to the star's day, reduces their focus time, and likely misidentifies who may be the correct person to ask.

The shift from surviving to thriving

Having our employees just "get through the day" isn't rewarding work. It's also unlikely to be work that helps the company achieve its future-focused strategy. To help employees reach their goals, first ensure they have the right tools and information to do their job. If they have the tools, ensure employees understand and use their resources to their full capacity.

Beyond basic tools, try to allow employees as much autonomy and flexibility to balance their workload and their life as possible. This allows them to do the work when it works best for them. For instance, some thrive early in the morning, while others prefer to work once kids are in bed. Encourage employees to schedule focus time so they can have undivided attention on important tasks. Also, let your employees know they can schedule recovery time to catch up on emails, go for a walk, or unplug.

Build a workplace culture that allows employees to support each other, either through their work tasks or through emotional support. Creating touchpoints between employees can help reduce bottlenecks and build comradery. Incorporate ways to design your employee’s roles to meet their unique needs.

Finally, there are several non-obvious ways that can also help build employee resilience and improve workplace culture.

  • Recognize not all workdays are equal. Like a sports coach, recognize when you need to change the lineup on the fly to better utilize who is having a great day.
  • Trust that people have good intentions and they will get the work done. When there is trust, people will be less resentful of a micromanager and more focused on doing good work intrinsically.
  • Treat people fairly and with respect. Reducing microaggressions and building equity will foster greater collaboration and help people stay focused on the task at hand.

Providing clear and explicit expectations and allowing for employee autonomy is a great way to discover the true potential of individuals. It will show you what engages employees as well as where you can offer additional development. This will help both employees and the company grow.

More from Lauren Florko Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today