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Unwritten Labs is a playground for learning, applying, and improving the science of unwritten rules, to help teams and organizations transform how they work.

“Nothing in the written Constitution explicitly guarantees the right to have a pet dog, to play the fiddle, to relax at home, to enjoy family life with your loved ones, or to wear a hat. But these and countless other liberties are generally upheld by American governments, absent compelling reasons for abridgment.”

Akhil Reed Amar
America’s Unwritten Constitution:
The Precedents and Principles We Live By

“You’re surrounded in every part of your life by invisible forces that shape your behavior. I get that this sounds crazy, like science fiction: forces that influence how you behave whenever you’re around other people, how you act and what you say in life’s most important and least consequential moments.”

Jeff Leitner
Unwritten Rules:
Organizational Change & Workplace Design

“As typical children venture out into an ever widening social circle and hone their social skills through trial and error, they realize — by about age four — that rules vary across settings and consequences are often not uniformly applied.”

Dr. Temple Grandin & Sean Barron
Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships:
Decoding Social Mysteries Through Autism’s Unique Perspectives

“The unwritten rules as they exist today have to do with the rough-and-tumble game on the field in which players fight for an edge and take issue with disrespect as if they had just finished watching The Godfather.”

Paul Dickson
The Unwritten Rules of Baseball:
The Etiquette, Conventional Wisdom, and Axiomatic Codes of Our National Pastime

Unwritten Rules in the News

Elite colleges disadvantage the poor through unwritten rules. “Elite Colleges Constantly Tell Low-Income Students That They Do Not Belong,” The Atlantic

Consumers will benefit from T-Mobile/Sprint merger because of unwritten rules. “1 Big Reason T-Mobile/Sprint Will Be Good for Consumers,” NASDAQ.com

Patagonia breaks the unwritten rule about superficiality in exit interviews. “At Patagonia, exit interviews are rare—but they go deep,” Quartz at Work

Sometimes, the unwritten rule is just wrong. Walking on escalators actually slows everybody down. “People who walk on the escalator actually slow everyone down,” Quartz

Utah symphony blows up unwritten rules to attract new audiences. “Not a classical music fan? Utah Symphony is ditching the ‘unwritten rules’ to make you feel welcome,” The Salt Lake Tribune

Unwritten rules may be our only hope in untangling privacy and big data. “Where regulation meets responsibility: The unwritten rules of customer data,” BAI Banking Strategies

Unwritten rules disadvantage women in the workplace. “Why Yes Men don't win in the end,” CNN Business

There’s an unwritten rule that Tories can criticize the U.S. president, but can’t call him racist. “The biggest player in the Tory leadership contest isn’t Boris Johnson – it’s Donald Trump,” Independent

Capital markets run on unwritten rules. “Gentlemen’s agreements: Time to reassess,” GlobalCapital

Woman alleges that Allstate had an unwritten rule not to sell insurance to folks in a diverse Toronto neighborhood. “Woman Sues Insurance Company After Allegedly Denying Auto Insurance to Brampton Residents,” In Brampton

Unwritten rules are one of the four reasons behind road rage. “Why we're wired to get angry behind the wheel,” CBC

There’s an unwritten rule that air-kissing in a professional setting is OK on the French side of Switzerland, but not on the German side. “What you need to know about Swiss business etiquette,” The Local

US government is now holding multi-billion-dollar businesses responsible for following unwritten rules. “U.S. orders foreign firms to further cut down on oil trades with Venezuela,” Reuters

Chicago mayor's race may have shown us how to restore unwritten rule about civility. “From slugfest to lovefest in Chicago,” The Christian Science Monitor

Rhonda Rousey's popularity was due in part to flaunting the unwritten rules of WWE. “Ronda Rousey Provoked WWE's Aging, Traditionalist Fanbase And It's Working Like A Charm,” Forbes

Much of the chaos in the UK around Brexit is because the UK constitution is largely unwritten rules. “World View: Will Brexit be UK’s constitutional moment?” The Irish Times

Lawsuit alleges that Ohio parole board bases decisions on unwritten rules, such as Always deny first-time requests. “Ohio parole board under fire from victims, inmates and lawmakers,” Butler County Journal-News

Kvetching bests the unwritten rules of airline marketing. “China Airlines wins over internet with ad about downside of travel,” The New Daily

Q & A

What are unwritten rules?

Unwritten rules are remarkably powerful, informal suggestions about how we should behave and what we should do to succeed in social environments. We learn unwritten rules when the people around us model them or, in some instances, tell us about them. We are rewarded with social acceptance when we comply and suffer some form of social rejection when we don’t.

Do all groups have unwritten rules?

Absolutely. While we’re usually unaware of it, we’re following and reinforcing unwritten rules at home with our families, out with our friends, at work with our colleagues, and with strangers in every social environment. In a typical day, we likely move through a dozen environments in which we have to adapt to different unwritten rules or suffer the social consequences.

What happens if we violate unwritten rules?

That depends on the environment and the seriousness of the violation. At one end — say, standing on the side of the escalator typically used by walkers — the social sanction is likely just a dirty look. But at the high end — for example, socializing with the wrong group in prison — the price you pay may be life or limb.

If unwritten rules are so important, why don’t we know about them?

One, you were born into the golden age of written rules. For most of human history — about 295,000 of the estimated 300,000 years that homo sapiens have been wandering around — we depended solely on unwritten rules to keep each other line. This worked fine as we lived exclusively in small groups and could maintain order with menacing glares and aggressive postures. But in about 3,000 BC, the Ancient Egyptians developed both the first civilization and the first written rules to maintain order within a larger, more complex environment. Since then — particularly since the Second Industrial Revolution — the number of written rules has exploded and we’re now drowning in millions of written rules, laws, ordinances, regulations, policies, etc.

Two, we process unwritten rules unconsciously. We are continuously scanning other people for social cues, deducing the unwritten rules in a given environment, and then making instantaneous decisions about whether to comply, violate, or ignore those unwritten rules — hundreds of times a day. But, except on rare occasions, we are completely unaware we’re doing it. Also, research has shown that we are uncomfortable with the idea that we’re responding to social pressure, preferring to believe that our behavior is wholly self-directed.

Why do we have unwritten rules?

There are several reasons. First, unwritten rules keep social groups stable and predictable. Without them, we would all struggle to navigate even the simplest and most familiar environments. Second, unwritten rules regulate social tension. If we experience too much tension in a group we’re part of, we can’t tolerate the accompanying anxiety. But if we experience too little tension, we get bored and check out. Finally, unwritten rules help groups distinguish themselves from other groups.

Why bother researching and working on unwritten rules?

While unwritten rules keep social groups stable and predictable, they also make them highly resistant to change. Thus, change initiatives in organizations, industries, and society fail at alarming rates. We need to understand better how unwritten rules work and how to alter them if we are to successfully adapt to social, environmental, and market pressures.



Currently in development: A toolkit for designers to help them use unwritten rules in their work. The toolkit includes an illustrated field guide for understanding, recognizing and altering unwritten rules; a poster highlighting the four steps to successful change; 100 cards with unwritten rules in typical organizations; and 50 cards with unwritten rules and unique features of atypical environments. Sign up here to receive notice when the toolkit is available.

Currently in development: A database of unwritten rules in the workplace. We’re collecting unwritten rules from all sizes of organizations in the private, public, and social sectors for our research and the resources we’re developing. If you’re willing to contribute an unwritten rule from a current or former workplace (we’d love that), see here.

Underway: Unwritten Rule of the Day. Each weekday morning, Jeff Leitner tweets out an unwritten rule pulled from news stories around the world. Follow Leitner on Twitter here.

Underway: A speaking tour on the role of unwritten rules in organizational change. Author Jeff Leitner and workplace strategist Jan Johnson are speaking in 16 cities in the U.S. and Canada about how to make change stick — at industry events, in workshops, and at conferences. See here for more information about the Unwritten Rules Tour, sponsored by Allsteel.