Saturday, April 19, 2014

Interpersonal Pearl: We all have to know the rules for whatever game we play.

I had some business cards printed up to help promote my book Pearls from Sand. I asked my supervisor at a place where I do volunteer work if I could post a card on their bulletin board; she said yes. The next time I came in, I saw that the card was gone, so I put up another one, thinking that someone who was interested in the book had taken the card. The same thing happened the next week. When I saw the empty bulletin board the following week, my supervisor told me, “Don’t put up any more cards. The manager has been taking them down.”

I didn’t want to irritate the manager, so of course I would have stopped posting the cards had I known I was violating a policy. But my supervisor hadn’t passed along this useful tidbit of information. I didn’t know the rules. I learned a long time ago that it’s not fair to expect people to follow “the rules” if you haven’t told them what the rules are. They don’t necessarily have to like or agree with the rules, but all of the participants have to know them to follow them.

I encountered a misunderstanding about “the rules” early in my career as a research scientist. A group of scientists was learning how to use some specific software to design experiments efficiently and analyze the resulting data. The leader of this group, Ben, was working under a manager named Sylvia. Sylvia knew of my interest in computers and invited me to join the group, so I began participating and applying what I learned to my own experiments.

Several weeks later Sylvia stuck her head in my office. “We have a problem,” she said. “What’s that?” I asked, puzzled. Sylvia said, “You’ve been using the design-of-experiments software that Ben has been working on. But what are you doing for Ben?” Her tone was quiet but somewhat accusatory.

I was surprised. No one had ever told me about a quid pro quo, an expectation that I was supposed to repay Ben in some way. When Sylvia invited me to join the group, I thought it was just an interest group in which people put their heads together and built on the work others had done, as in most scientific endeavors. If she had told me at the outset that I was expected to share my data and results with Ben to help advance the group’s expertise, that would have been fine with me. But neither Sylvia nor Ben ever told me the rules of her game before she essentially accusing me of cheating. As a result of simply not explaining the rules, Sylvia and Ben were irritated with me and I ended up feeling bad, both of which were easily avoidable.

From a couple of experiences like this, I took away the message that it’s a good idea to put the ground rules in place for any collaborative activity right up front. This principle applies to everything from how business processes are to be performed, to company standards and policies, to the ways that collaborative teams make decisions, and to how people co-author a book. Rules are generally arbitrary and often they are somewhat flexible, but everybody needs to know what they are.

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