What Causes UGRs?

Unwritten Ground Rules or UGRs are people’s perceptions of ‘this is the way we do things around here’. Incredibly, UGRs dictate people’s behaviour, yet they are rarely if ever discussed openly. Here, we take a deeper look at UGRs…

When I work with companies to help boost their culture, one of the most common questions is:

“What causes UGRs?”

This is an interesting question!

In my view, UGRs in large part are caused by people analysing whether there is a difference between what is said and what is done by ‘significant’ people in a team or organisation.

By ‘significant’, I mean designated leaders and opinion leaders, who may not necessarily be designated leaders.

Let’s consider an example.

A manager at a staff meeting talks about the importance of initiative. Then one week later, the same manager can be heard berating someone who took a risk that backfired.

Here there is a difference between what the manager said and what they did – and a negative UGR is created. And it will not take long for this to permeate the whole team.

It’s fascinating to explore the fact that the transmission of UGRs can be traced as far back as 1936. Well known in the field of psychology, Muzifar Sherif conducted an ‘autokinetic experiment’. This involved the use of a point of light which moved in an otherwise darkened room. The experiment asked people individually, then collectively to estimate the movement of the light. When people did this alone, their estimates varied greatly. When they were in a group, they were asked to verbalise their estimates. Interestingly, in groups, estimates grew closer and closer with each trial, until they agreed on the distance.

This is a stark illustration of the power that groups have over individuals to conform.

Of course, UGRs are not always negative. When they are positive, and oriented towards the strategic objectives of the organisation, they make things happen.

Not surprisingly, positive and productive UGRs emerge when there is alignment between what people say and what they do.

Last year, I had the pleasure of doing some joint presentations with Derek Williams in the UK. Derek is the creator of the Wow! Awards which recognise great service by British businesses (he’s also a great speaker as well!).

Derek provided an example of a company that has a real commitment to service – a company called Richer Sounds. During the presentation, he outlined some of the many initiatives this company has in place that demonstrates their commitment to customers and staff.

When I took over from Derek, I introduced the audience to the concept of UGRs. I then asked the group what they thought might be the UGRs at Richer Sounds. This was prompted by asking how they thought staff at Richer Sounds might complete these sentences:

    • Around here, if you do something well…
    • Around here, customers are…
    • Around here, if you’ve got a problem the bosses…
    • Around here, initiative…

The responses were overwhelmingly positive – and Derek could confirm that they were right!

It’s really interesting to ponder the fact that the majority of people want a positive culture. It’s equally interesting to note that in many organisations the culture is far less than positive.

UGRs are an organisation’s culture – when there is alignment between what people say and what they do, the UGRs and the culture will be positive. It’s worth fighting for!