There are two types of ground rules in any organization: those you will find in books of regulations and posters on the wall, and those that are not written anywhere. The written ground rules are what make the organization look good to external audits and make the bosses feel that they are sending all the right messages to the troops down below. The unwritten rules can either reaffirm what is in writing or can poison the entire effort. Learning the unwritten ground rules are key to survival in an organization. Learning to turn around poisonous unwritten ground rules can be key to survival for the organization itself.
— James Albright
Day One at my first flying job after retiring from the military was a promising one. The chief pilot assured me that my years as an Air Force safety officer would serve me well in our flight department. “Safety first is more than a catch phrase around here,” he said. “We are a crew airplane,” he continued. “Every voice counts.” Two weeks later I found myself in the right seat of one of our Challenger 604s, with the deputy chief pilot flying from the left. Let’s call him Gary, because that was his name. We were about 500 feet above the ground, having just broken out of a solid overcast, on final to Runway 26 Left. The normal airport flow for calm winds was landings on 26 Left and Right, takeoffs from Runway 15. (This was before that runway morphed into 15 Left and Right.) We would have preferred to land on Runway 15, since our hangar was just off that runway’s midfield taxiway, but there we were, seconds from touchdown. “Ask for a circle to 15,” Gary said. “We are too low to circle, let’s just land,” I said. “You going to ask, like I told you to?” “No.” Gary keyed the mike and asked tower, who cleared us as he had requested. I am ashamed to say I spent the next minute as a passenger in the copilot’s seat. Gary overshot Runway 15 and managed to land us about 3,000 feet down the runway, which worked out. I think we got our passengers to the ramp about one minute early. The next day I gave the chief pilot the play-by-play, leaving out no details. His response told me all I needed to know. “He got our passengers on their way faster, and that’s the job, isn’t it?” In the next month I learned three of our nine pilots were cast from the Gary mold, the rest tempered their conduct based on whomever occupied the other seat.
Negative UGRs and “the way we do things around here”
Steve Simpson and Stef du Plessis, coauthors of “A Culture Turned,” have studied organizational cultures, which they say are the collection of Unwritten Ground Rules, or UGRs, that drive people’s behavior in the workplace. UGRs are people’s perceptions of ‘this is the way we do things around here’ and they drive people’s behavior, yet they are rarely talked about openly. UGRs can be positive, neutral, or negative.
Gary was promoted after our chief pilot retired and the resulting change in the flight department was obvious. Gary and his friends became emboldened in their “the captain is always right” attitude and they ensured they would always fly as captain. The rest of the pilots started finding new jobs until there were only two of us “never right” pilots left. Gary hired pilots he knew would place loyalty to him above all else and our flight department’s performance predictably fell. After a few incidents where our passengers witnessed panic and confusion from the cockpit, Gary was fired and my fellow “never right” pilot was elevated to the top spot. The new chief pilot asked for my advice about how to right what was wrong. “Think of what Gary would do,” I answered, "and do the opposite.”
Positive UGRs and “the organization that runs itself”
Years later I joined a new flight department where I was dismayed to find our training vendor was a “type rating mill,” designed to cheaply qualify pilots without doing any actual training. Our chief pilot, let’s call him Buddy (not his real name), had two primary motivations: to minimize his workload and to get along with everyone at all costs. The top two UGRs among the troops were “don’t make things difficult, when they can be easy,” and “don’t rock the boat.” It became obvious the troops were capable of more and wanted to do more, but the man on top was in the way. I got called into the company’s head office and was directed to take over and turn the ship around. I immediately fired our training vendor, wrote a new Company Operations Manual (COM), and started our foray into a Safety Management System (SMS). Slowly, but surely, our UGRs started to shift.
As Steve Simpson and Stef du Plessis noted, positive UGRs underpin teams that are upbeat, dynamic, and productive. One of our UGRs was that mistakes are learning opportunities for more than just the person making the mistake, but for the entire team. One of our pilots started debriefing everything he had learned from the flight and requested ideas on how to improve. He called it the “What’s the DEAL?” report. The person doing the critique would be sure to cover everything from planning through the [Departure], any [E]n route events, anything from the [A]rrival phase through aircraft securing, and all [L]ogbook items. This self-imposed critique became a normal procedure for us, even though it didn’t appear in any of our written rules and regulations. The team then suggested I add the DEAL report to our COM. I gladly did so. I was starting to think I had achieved the ultimate: an organization that was so well run, it ran itself. But I was wrong.
When our standards pilot was medically grounded, I selected a replacement based on seniority, since each pilot appeared equal in qualification. Let’s call him Stan, but that isn’t his real name. Stan embraced his new duties gladly and his first act was to update all his social media pages, proudly proclaiming his new title, which I considered a warning sign. He appeared to fulfil his duties competently, though I wasn’t happy with what I considered a lack of tact in his emails. I counseled him and he promised to do better. The company was happy with us, as evidenced by healthy pay raises, bonuses, and feedback from the boss. The troops, I thought, were happy too. But I should have been more observant.
As I am sure is true for most leaders, when you are running an organization, you will be starved for feedback. Nobody wants to badmouth their peers to the boss, which means the boss can be left in the dark. I made it a habit of sitting down with any retiring or moving team members and asked for help. “Is there anything about me or anyone else that is hurting our team? What have I been missing?” One of our retirees told me that Stan was going out of his way to belittle others and people were starting to avoid the hangar if they knew he was in that day. I realized then that I was responsible for a negative UGR that I was responsible for. Since Stan was my pick, the troops thought, Stan was operating with my blessing. Stan would openly berate his fellow pilots for falling short of his ideals. Instead of teaching, he would ridicule. A common refrain: “I can’t believe you didn’t know this.” If this were a military organization, I would say that Stan was corrosive to unit morale and cohesion. And it was my fault. When you are the person in charge, it is easy to become blind to UGRs.
Turning the negative to positive
Negative UGRs can almost always be traced back to the leader. As authors Steve Simpson and Stef du Plessis note, the person in charge must first realize that accountability begins at home, that it’s time for a change, and that there will be major consequences if there is no change. I had to admit that Stan was my mistake and I had to find another way for him to contribute where his job title didn’t give him a license to bully others.
Simpson and du Plessis believe you can get leaders to accept ownership for negative UGRs but acknowledge it is an uphill battle. In my experience, the most efficient way to stop negative UGRs is to replace the person in charge, as happened to Gary and Buddy. If you are the person in charge, you need to listen carefully to your people, get a sense for any hidden UGRs, and be willing to accept the fact that you could be the problem. A negative UGR can sink your organization, and when that happens you could be the first to be shown the door.
Simpson, Steve, du Plessis, A Culture Turned, South Carolina, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017