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Rules, Hierarchy and Institutions

Uncategorized Mar 09, 2021
Watching Prince Harry with James Corden and the interview that Meghan and Harry did with Oprah left me with some mouth wide open moments, moments of sadness, moments of frustration and moments of joy. However you feel about the Royals and the departure of Meghan and Harry, I couldn't help but draw comparisons of what it means to work in organisations and institutions that have many rules, written and unspoken and problems with communication when it comes to hierarchy.
Firstly, let's talk about titles. Meghan said she'd been a Princess and many a royal correspondent and expert in matters of titles will say that Meghan was never a princess. This was explained all over the media at the time of the wedding and the reasons behind this, it seems though Meghan didn't get that memo. When it comes to the title of Prince for Archie, the same experts, news correspondents and experts will say that at the time that Charles becomes King, Archie would then receive the title. I can remember having these conversations about the 'rules' with many friends and family and my view that it was unfair and seemed outdated, and we discussed that 'this is the way that things are done around here'. It's the rules of the institute.
To see Meghan's misunderstanding of the rules, I couldn't help but wonder how many times in our organisations we assume that someone should know or understand something. Those of us who have been in the business for a while may assume that everyone else just understands it. We can make the assumption that Harry should have explained this to her, but did he assume that she would already know? Did anyone check Meghan's understanding or sit down with her and the rulebook and talk it through or was the expectation that you don't question it, you just go with the flow?
Then come the rules of engagement or marriage in this case. It appears that Meghan's understanding of marriage three days before the public ceremony was an exchange of vows only and not a legally binding marriage. A job offer is not the same as receiving the contract, even if you've been in and met the employers several times before actually coming on board. Was this understood? Was this explained? Who was responsible for providing the clarity?
I remember my days with the John Lewis Partnership. All Department Managers and Store Managers at Waitrose were called Mr or Mrs, never by their first name. This seemed outdated, but it was the rules and the way things were done. I remember my first day at John Lewis after transferring from Waitrose. I'd walked up to the dining room with my Department Manager, we'd gotten our lunch from the kitchen together and as we carried on talking I kept walking with her and as she walked in through a door I then followed, assuming we were having lunch together.
She stopped abruptly in the doorway as the other heads from the long dining table all looked up, and instructed me that this was the dining room for Department Managers only. I'd have to find my own seat with everyone else. I was mortified, shocked, embarrassed and I felt this outdated and unnecessary. This was the hierarchy and this was the rules. Thankfully this practice did come to an end, and yet it was an unwritten and until then, an unspoken rule.
For those of us who have lived and breathed the rules and culture of an organisation for so long, it's easy to forget to pass on the rules, protocols and hierarchy information to those who join later on, because it's ingrained in our every day, or, it's all we've ever known and it just becomes second nature. If you've never made a cup of tea before and the assumption is that you know how to do it, you can end up feeling quite stupid when you're stood staring at the empty cup and not knowing what to do next.
In our organisations large and small, the way we do things does become second nature, and that's why it's even more important that if we want new joiners to feel that they belong, we bring them up to speed with how things work as quickly as possible with the nuances and quirks, the rules and the procedures so that they don't feel left out, isolated or foolish for not understanding the rules.
Imagine day one in your life-long job contract, in what seems to be the perfect role that you'll carry out until the day you depart the earth, only to find that communication is broken, there isn't a checklist for the induction, nobody is really explaining anything to you and you don't know what you don't know. Yet the assumption is that you've done your research, you know the basics and that you'll ask for help if you get a bit stuck. But what's your reporting line?
Who do you ask? What do you ask when you don't even know what the question is or what the missing piece of the puzzle is?
I used to joke with my parents about the conversation I'd have with the Queen when I got my invite to the Palace and I remember the first thing my Mum said to me was 'you'd better start practising your curtsey'. If those around you don't tell you these basics and you don't think to ask, things may not end very well.
It's easy sometimes as leaders to assume that people know what to do, how to do it and when to do it. And yet if nobody clarifies and nobody takes responsibility and nobody communicates, and nobody teaches, our assumptions can make an ass out of both you and me.
Our communication and the lessons we teach cannot be assumed, nor can they be on-size-fits-all. We need to make it personal.
James Watt from Brewdog posted a month or so ago about what they have done to ensure their key messaging doesn't get lost and their processes and procedures don't become too bureaucratic, which is a sensible approach. If your organisation though is hundreds of years old, built on principles and foundations that are hundreds of years old and built and established on rules, and protocols and hierarchy, it can be more difficult to simplify things and explain things in a way that are meaningful, and yet it's not impossible. You just have to realise that each and every person is different, not everyone has the same experience and knowledge and it's your role to understand this as early on as possible and provide the information and the welcome that's needed.
To know you'll never have the 'top job', can I suppose be a blessing and a curse. You're still expected to play the game, knowing that you'll never receive the top spot, title, perks and responsibilities, and at the same time, a bit of the pressure is off and you have a little more freedom to be yourself. And sometimes, knowing you'll never have the top spot and being a bit of a rebel will mean you're either pushed out, or you walk away into a new role somewhere that your talents will be appreciated and valued, somewhere that fits your values and that has a lot fewer rules.
And we all know of a middle manager who's broken the rules severely but rather than be dismissed has been demoted to a less visible position, away from the spotlight and with much less responsibility, but just enough to earn their keep and keep their pension, because after all, they aren't that bad really, and we're never going to talk about what they've done - we don't do things like that around here!
The world of work is changing around us whether we accept that or not. What worked 100 years ago or more, is not fit for how we do things now. If we don't make the experience for our people enjoyable and worthwhile they won't stay.
Just because, 'we've always done it that way' doesn't make it right.
And just because we have the rules in place, it doesn't mean that we can't flex or break them from time to time.
What remains key though is our ability to communicate clearly. To explain, to clarify, to question and to challenge. To listen and to learn and to have the courage to have the conversations that may seem challenging, but that can damage our brand and reputation severely if we allow things to fester and we don't say what needs to be said. All the emails and letters and notices in the world will not replace our ability to have the in-person conversations that matter the most.
The world of work is changing, and so too must we.
Kelly is an Executive Coach for CEO's and CPO's who want to change the world of work at and Founder of The Chrysalis Crew.
She leads and coaches with an open heart, an open mind and has the courage to challenge the status quo and do things differently so that we can all love our roles, find balance in our lives and so that we can all change the world of work for the better.

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