Unspoken Rules at Work

I was recently listening to an episode of HBR IdeaCast. The conversation was with Gorick Ng, a career advisor at Harvard. He counsels young people on how to take on their first job in a way that puts them on the fast-track to success. He’s the author of the book The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right.

The episode sparked this post as it resonated with me based on my prior experience in the industry. The idea here is that they are some unspoken rules in the industry that no one explains to you when you start a job. Knowing them could kickstart your career and put you on the path to success. Top performers on every team usually do these things, but they don’t realize their importance in their success.

There are three different axes of being successful at work:

  1. Competence

The minute you step into our workplace, your colleagues start to size you up to figure out whether you can do your job? They try to measure if you are excited and if you get along? To be successful, these three criteria must be met.

Learner vs. Leader mode

In a job, there are two different modes: learner mode vs. leader mode.

When you start a job, it’s important to stay quiet and ask a lot of questions. This is because you always want to start in learner mode and move gradually into leader mode. That happens when you know more than the others on the team. Being mindful of which of these two modes you are in can help inform how you should be conducting yourself in meetings and alongside your coworkers.

Asking questions

Another important topic is when joining a new job, we should be willing to ask for help. So often, managers say to feel free to ask any questions because there are no stupid questions. In reality, though, that’s not entirely true. A stupid question is a question that you could have figure out an answer on your own.

Before asking a question, do your own due diligence. Look at previous emails, wikis, team folders and previous conversations. Only after you did your homework, go to the most junior coworker and ask your question, letting them know that you have already tried to figure out the answer by looking at all these resources. The idea here is to bundle and escalate: you are going one time at a time through the chain of command until you get an answer. Just make sure you show that you have already helped yourself before asking a question. You want to be cognizant of the signals you are sending to your coworkers.

Mirror successful people

Mirroring your most successful coworkers could also be a beneficial measure in your path to success. Unspoken rules permeate across different geographies, industries and job types; it’s somehow true, but many of them seem like common sense, but they are learned behavior within the upper middle-class white male-dominated white-collar social circle that have happened to make their way across global teams. If you are born into the circle, these cultural norms are gifted like inheritance, but for many people, these norms are considered what we don’t know what we don’t know. As a result, they could quickly become invisible obstacles for upward mobility in the enterprise world if you are not aware of them.


How work toward promotions without seeming pushy?

It would be best to show that you can do your core tasks well and then sign up for more responsibility. Be mindful of what matters to those who matter. Try to understand what are top priorities of your manager and your skip manager. The more you know, the more you can pick up assignments, volunteer for them, or propose more on what matters. It empowers you to align with the important work and makes you a valuable member of your org. The more you matter to your organization, they will be more compelled in your career and your promotion.

Asking for clarity

If you are delegated a task or project, you want to figure out the answers to the following questions upfront.

  1. What do I need to do?

If you don’t find the answers to these questions, you could potentially be undershooting your zone of competence and possibly getting micromanaged. Ask your manager to set expectations clearly.


In the end, our goal in the workplace should be to make the unspoken spoken. Managers shouldn’t expect their subordinates to read their minds but while it’s happening the best we could do is to prepare and teach ourselves these rules.

As mentioned, many of these unspoken rules start off as things we don’t know we don’t know and then morph into something we consider common sense.

Software Engineer living in the Bay Area

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