Write down your unwritten rules
Write down your unwritten rules
Review you business's accepted norms at least once a year

By Hayley Robins, Senior Accountant at Hive Business

Here’s a well written piece about unwritten rules in the Harvard Business Review with import for dental practice owners. It’s by Karen Niovitch Davis, partner and chief human resources officer at the US strategic comms firm Prosek Partners, which opened its first office in the UK this summer.

Here’s what she’s saying: whether you are conscious of them or not, your business has unwritten rules; some are good, others counterproductive, so you should write them down and ask employees to do the same, then have a board level meeting reviewing you business’s accepted norms at least once a year. Whenever strategic changes are going to affect the behaviour required from your team you need to overcommunicate (repeat and re-emphasise the message at all levels) because people don’t like change.

This reminds me of dentists too much. Many are business leaders who don’t quite know it because they are principals doing mostly clinical work, so they remain aloof from the culture in their own practice. While out of surgery they have little time to reflect and think strategically which, combined with a lot of pressure, means ‘soft’ human elements may be overlooked in the interests of making the ‘right’ decision objectively.

Davis makes another point: you should signal the behaviour you want from employees rather than dictate. This is linked to the human need for belonging and meaning, which can often be met by shouldering weight in a communal activity like work. So letting your team members take on responsibility and choose how to deal with it can support morale — but only if you signal that it’s a welcome behaviour.

Proponents of self-determination theory such as Edward Deci have argued that in order for humans to grow and feel good they need autonomy, competence and relatedness (slightly at odds with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). For this to happen your staff do need the right signals. This is easy to miss. I know that when I leave work early, for instance, my long-time colleagues know there is a good reason. I work from home and I work late a lot of the time, but newer colleagues might not know this and might, understandably, take it as an accepted norm that leaving early is OK, or perhaps assume, and begin to resent, that there’s one rule for me and another for them.

On the other hand, I take my lead from other senior colleagues who are available to clients out of hours, so I have followed suit. I don’t have a problem with this unwritten rule because I see the value in providing high quality customer service. But that’s just me, so we probably need a board level conversation every so often to check this out — as Davis’s examples of Facebook and Tesla show, if you’re not explicit as a leader then you’re responsible for people interpreting your implicit messaging on their own terms.

I think the most important point by Davis is the need for overcommunication whenever the goalposts move. There are always going to be shifts in strategy in your business. You might set up a squat and prioritise driving up revenue for the first three years, but then it’s on to prioritising stability. If you only discuss this with your accountant and business manager, how are the people on the ground buying materials supposed to know what’s expected of them? By overcommunicating you can support them in doing their job really well. They’ll feel good and so will your business.

Hayley Robins
By Hayley Robins Senior Accountant
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