The Written Rules Get In The Way

I found myself writing a frustrated social media message earlier this week. I was about to rant online about a customer service experience that got me to exponential levels of ire. This arguably would have been me screaming into the void (which is, to be honest, a lot of what social media feels like right now). Rather than add to the wailing, I pressed delete. And wrote this post instead.

The phone hit the cradle with a bang. I exhaled heavily. Rude words may have been muttered under my breath. The thought at the forefront of my mind: “Companies need to stop creating rules that force their clients to be assholes before they get the service that they have been promised.”

And so begins another post on rules and how the operate. And more particularly, here begins another post on how rules create organizational culture; not just the culture that we experience as employees, but also the culture that is projected out into the world and experienced by clients and customers.

I’ve already written about how the unwritten rules come to form organizational culture. This is entirely true. And what gets accepted as “how things get done around here” has far greater overall influence on culture than anything written down on paper. What hasn’t been addressed, though, is where the unwritten rules come from.

Here’s the interesting thing about how the unwritten rules work: frequently, they are a reaction to the written and formal rules of the organization. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, Newton tells us. This is true in physics. It is similarly true in organizational functioning. Policies, processes and procedures define the formal expectations of the organization. The unwritten rules are the response of the people working within that organization.

In a perfect world—and I acknowledge upfront that this is a rare, idealistic and rarely visited place—the written and unwritten rules align. No one goes around with a formal copy of the organizational policies or practices, following them verbatim. As individuals and as groups, we codify and internalize how we get things done. We interpret the formal rules and come up with ways of remembering and putting them into action that aligns with what is expected. We develop what essentially becomes the implicit and tacit knowledge of “this is how things get done around here.” Which should have some level of traceability back to the rules the organization has formally defined in the first place.

What actually happens is often a little bit more devious, manipulative and subversive. Unwritten rules aren’t just a response to the written rules; they are often the reaction. As policies and processes become bureaucratic, complicated, arbitrary or unwieldy, unwritten rules emerge. Sometimes, these are designed to soften, make more practical, mitigate unintended consequences or filter out some of the more unthinking and impractical aspects of policy. Sometimes, these subvert the intent of the policy completely. They work around, they ignore, they avoid or they engage in wilful compliance.

We’ve seen these manifestations in numerous instances, and social media usually celebrates the most egregious of them. Whether it is people being denied check-in at an airline because by the time they were finally invited up to the desk it was 30 seconds past the cut-off for the flight. Banks charging interest on their transaction errors. Phone companies sending out bills with the same error, over and over again.

It was a phone company that prompted the frustration that started this post. There had been a problem with the service at my house earlier this year. After several technician visits, someone knowledgeable, patient and persistent enough traced the problem to a fault in the cable buried through my yard. He ran a temporary cable over several tree branches from the house to the junction box, with an assurance that a team would be out to bury a new line shortly. Problem solved. That was March.

It’s October now. The cable is still there. Winter’s coming, and the ground will be frozen soon. I helpfully called the company back to remind them that there was a cable that remained unburied, and they might want to get on that so it didn’t wait until the spring. Only to be told, essentially, that winter is coming and it would have to wait until the spring.

Now, what I was actually told was “Burial season is ending in two weeks. Orders need to be placed six to eight weeks in advance, so you’ll have to wait until spring.” Pointing out that this was a longstanding problem, that the work leading to the need for a buried cable was months old, and that their technician had committed that it would be done this year made no change whatsoever. It would have to be in the spring. Every objection, suggestion, insistence or identification of logical unreasonability resulted in the same answer.

And so I escalated. I asked to be transferred to someone that could approve making this happen. “Do you mean you want to talk to a supervisor?” No, I want to talk to someone who can approve this. After a couple of deflections that suggested this wasn’t an avenue that was viewed as particularly welcome, I was finally put on hold. And transferred to a manager. Who listened to what it happened, created a ticket and forwarded it directly to a supervisor responsible for burial work in my area to get completed as soon as possible.

There are a few things to unpack here. First off, the person I was dealing with on the phone wasn’t particularly difficult or obstinate. They were doing their job. They were operating within the rules that they had been given. And they clearly had absolutely no discretion whatsoever to work around, outside of or in opposition to those rules. And so they tried—in the politest way possible—to do the only thing they were allowed to do, which was give me an appointment in the spring.

There are many, many reasons why doing this would be a bad idea. Winter out here can be intense. We usually get at least one ice storm a year that results in branches coming down, and there is every likelihood that a temporary line isn’t going to stay temporary for very long. Meaning service outages for us, and several relatively unpleasant technical service visits to restore service when the cable gets damaged. That’s not just a potential occurrence; it’s a likely one. It would be far cheaper and easier to get the work done this year, as promised.

This leads directly to the larger problem I want to unpack and examine. The technician that visited made a promise that the line would get buried. That promise was made with the reasonable expectation that they had the authority and responsibility to request it, and the belief that—having completed his work ticket—it was in the system and would be followed up. Outside technicians apparently did come out, the next day; kudos for responsiveness. What they should have done, seeing the temporary line, was order a new line to be buried. They did not. And so, months later, they have a customer—that would be me—pointing out that work that had been committed remained uncomplete.

From the perspective of the company, this means a few things. You have a customer that received a promise of work that should have been done but hasn’t been. The paperwork that should have happened did not get produced. The technicians that should have ordered the work didn’t enter the orders. What this represents is a service failure that they own in its entirety. The question that has to be asked is how they respond.

What you might expect as a response is, “We’re terribly sorry that we missed this. Let us make this right.” Instead, what I got was rules that promised to take a bad situation and keep making it worse. This was (likely) not a failure on the part of the person I was talking to. It was the arbitrary imposition of rules that constrained how things get done, and provide no flexibility for accommodation when something goes wrong.

What the rules here don’t allow for—at the front line level—is “When we organizationally make a mistake that results in our customers being negatively impacted, do what it takes to fix it promptly and make sure it’s resolved.” Given that your front line is—by definition—the first point of contact with the customer, this pretty much sets them up for failure and frustration. They wind up being on the receiving end of customer anger, with no ability to make that go away.

This isn’t to say that the problem can’t be fixed. But the fix requires getting past the front line staff and speaking with a supervisor, a manager or an executive. Resolution of customer problems therefore becomes an exception, not the rule. The harder you are willing to push as a customer, the more likely your situation is to be resolved. But the organizational rules are in essence designed to make that harder than it needs to be before the organization responds.

You might be reading this and asking, so what about the unwritten rules? Because so far we’ve been explicitly dealing with overt policy. In reality, though, we’ve also been engaging with the unwritten rules. In many bureaucracies, wilful rule following is one of the biggest unwritten rules there is. What this means is in essence a personal choice that says “I will comply with the rules to the letter, no matter how unreasonable they actually are.”

That might sound illogical, but there are very real underlying motives for it. Occasionally wilful rule following is an attempt to deliberately point out the inappropriateness or unreasonableness of the rules as written. Essentially, it’s getting the organization to fail, in the hopes that repeated failures prompt change.

More often, though, wilful rule following is simply a survival strategy. In the face of unreasonable expectations and no power, authority or discretion to do anything about it—and the real possibility of negative repercussions if you don’t follow the rules—people decide it is easier to comply than it is to fight. They follow the rules, because that’s the easiest way through. The work becomes a job that they show up for, survive, and hopefully leave at the end of the day with as few scars as possible.

Written rules always beget unwritten rules. The essential question is what kind of rules get created. And that depends largely on the thought and care that goes into designing the written rules in the first place, and the degree to which the organization cares more about principles or compliance.

That’s what gets us to the sentiment at the beginning: companies need to stop creating rules that force their customers to be difficult in order to get service. Good service should be the rule, not the exception. That is only true to the extent that the rules allow for good service. Starting with a principle of “do the right thing” goes a long way to designing better written rules—and influencing more productive unwritten rules.

3 Comments to “The Written Rules Get In The Way”

  1. Dennis Hess says:

    Complete agreement. What do you do when the CEO himself (and I checked; the CEO is male) doesn’t respond? I have had a running dispute over a medical bill with a corporate service provider for about ten months. Repeated calls and letters, with documentation, have been made to the provider’s billing department with no response. In frustration I wrote a letter, which I sent as a certified letter (meaning I have a signature verification of its receipt) to the CEO about a month ago. No response. The debate I’m having with myself now is whether to have a face-to-face meeting with the CEO or report this behavior to my state’s Attorney General.

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Dennis, that’s a challenging situation. And yes, if a satisfactory resolution hasn’t been found, then unfortunately continued escalation is probably the answer. Hopefully you get to some kind of end point soon.


  2. Michael Hilbert says:

    “Resolution of customer problems therefore becomes an exception, not the rule.”……. Goes to Aristotle’s quote …..”We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

    Thanks Mark

Leave a Comment