The Career Rules You Didn’t Learn at School

ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

Getting started in your career isn’t easy. Depending on the economy and the field you’ve chosen, it can mean dozens of applications and interviews. And then even when you’ve got a job, you might not understand exactly what you’re supposed to do, who to go to for advice, or how your organization works.

I remember my first few weeks as a young reporter in the New York bureau of the Financial Times. Sometimes I did feel like I was crushing it, but most of the time, I felt like I was flailing. I know that transitioning from school to the work world is even harder if you come from a low income background or you’re a person of color in a mostly white company. And you’re less likely to have the connections and mentors that your peers have.

Today’s guest faced many of those trials and tribulations himself. He’s a self-described outsider, who nonetheless found a place in corporate America. And today, he works to help others like him achieve in an insider’s world.

Gorick Ng is a career advisor at Harvard. And he’s the author of the new book, The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right. Gorick, so great to talk to you today.

GORICK NG: Hi, Alison. Wonderful to be here.

ALISON BEARD: Now there is a lot of advice already out there at this point about how to build a career. So what did you feel was missing?

GORICK NG: You’re absolutely right. There are plenty of websites, blogs, forums, videos out there on how to succeed in your career broadly speaking. But what I realized after doing research on my own for my own purposes and also talking to fellow early career professionals is that much of the advice out there is focused on how to get a job versus how to succeed once you’re in a job. And specifically, how do you succeed as an individual contributor?

ALISON BEARD: You did begin with your own experience though. So tell me a little bit about what it was like for you starting out in the working world.

GORICK NG: I would start actually even further back to my early childhood upbringing. I am the son of a working-class single mother who dropped out of school when she was 12 years old to support her brothers through school. And when I was 14, I ended up having to step up when my mom was laid off from her sewing machine factory job. I ended up spending recesses learning to write resumes and cover letters, afternoons at the public library looking for jobs, and evenings coaching my mom all through trial and error.

At the time, I thought that life was just difficult. We applied to hundreds of jobs, and didn’t get a single call back. It wasn’t until I became a first-generation low-income college student that I started observing friends of mine whose parents had been there, done that, and who had been coaching them over the dinner table on how to navigate not only higher ed, but getting a job and then succeeding in a job. That I realized that building a career requires so much more than simply applying to jobs online, or following what are the written instructions on companies’ websites, or even following the stated rules of the workplace. So much of what separates top performers who get ahead from perceived mediocre performers who stumble and don’t know why ultimately has to do with these so-called unspoken rules. Certain ways of doing things that managers expect, but don’t explain. And that top performers do, but don’t realize.

ALISON BEARD: So what are some specific ways that you’ve seen or documented where these insiders who have the privilege of understanding the unspoken rules of the work world? Primarily because of their socioeconomic class, probably. How are they getting ahead in the first few years of their career while outsiders are being left behind, even once they’re in the door?

GORICK NG: I would say that some of these disparities emerge even before one’s first day. Where, as I think about two archetypes of person A versus person B – person A being someone who knows the unspoken rules and is what I call an insider, versus person B who’s an outsider. Person A even before their first day may have been referred to the company; may have been introduced to higher ups who were able to tell them what the company has been up to recently. Who’s who, what do they care about? Such that they’re showing up already speaking the language, and understanding the priorities of the team and organization.

This individual on their first day may be compatible with their coworkers immediately, where small talk before meetings, they’re able to insert themselves. Because they too went skiing, or watched a certain TV show, or graduated from a certain higher ed institution.  And then from there on out, they’re getting introduced from coworker to coworker, where these coworkers are able to tell them how they should be approaching certain projects. Who to be consulting, who they should get to know.

Such that when we get into the fishbowl of let’s say a meeting, person A is showing up saying the right things, to the right people, at the right time. Having allies around the room who are able to vouch for their ideas. And furthermore, is able to come in with that greater level of confidence. By the time they get to let’s say the first week of their job, they’re already seen as someone who may be a high potential, someone that’s worth investing in more.

Person B on the other hand doesn’t know what they don’t know. In which case, prior to their first day, they’re thinking to themselves, I was thinking to myself well, my job hasn’t even started yet. So let me not do anything.

ALISON BEARD: And also just I’m going to start work, and do good work, and put my head down and show my stuff that way like I did in school.

GORICK NG: Exactly. And that’s very much the mindset once I showed up in the workplace and so many others like me. Where we grew up on this maxim of hard work will speak for itself. So when you’re delegated an assignment, it’s smile and nod, walk away, do the work, and expect that you’ll be rewarded. Not realizing that doing the work and being competent is only one of the three C’s that I talk about in the book. There’s so much more that goes on behind the scenes and in our everyday interactions that can separate how people perceive us.

ALISON BEARD: So briefly tell us what the three C’s are.

GORICK NG: The three C’s stand for competence, commitment, and compatibility. And the idea is this. The minute you step into the workplace, or even as a job seeker, your coworkers, managers, partners, and clients, they’re sizing you up and they’re asking themselves three questions. Can you do your job well? Which is what I call competence. Are you excited to be here? Which is what I call commitment. And do we get along? Which is what I call compatibility.

ALISON BEARD: And you did also settle on, I think I counted it was 20 unspoken rules. We have things like see the big picture and do your homework, to mirroring others, showing performance and potential. But what would you say is the most important rule? The very top advice that you would give someone looking for their first job and going into work that first day.

GORICK NG: I would say that it’s the rule of show you want to learn and help. Throughout our careers, we’re going to be in one of two unspoken modes, which I call learner mode versus leader mode. Learner mode is when you’re new to a team, a project, a company, and there’s going to be an unspoken expectation that you won’t know very much. So you’ll be staying quiet, taking notes, and asking questions.

However, over time, you’re going to gradually graduate over to what I call leader mode, which is the point at which people think, “Well, you’re closest to the details,” or “You know more about this than any of us. You should be the one to lead the meeting, or to speak up, or to ask these thoughtful questions.” And when it comes to being a new hire in the workplace, it’s important to first go from learner mode to leader mode, and not to jump straight there. Otherwise, you could end up overshooting your zone of commitment to the point of looking threatening or overbearing.

At the same time, for those who may be a little bit more soft-spoken who may not feel fully integrated into the team, it’s also important to know when others expect you to be in leader mode. When you yourself might still think that you’re in learner mode. In which case, you might be staying quiet in meetings where people expect you to be speaking up. So being mindful of which of these two modes you’re in can help inform how you should be conducting yourself in meetings and alongside your coworkers.

ALISON BEARD: You do talk a lot about a willingness to ask for help. And that can be really hard, especially when you’re new and trying to demonstrate competence early. So how do you go about it in the right way?

GORICK NG: I would start with the cliche of there is no such thing as a stupid question, which I was told certainly many times over by my managers, by my coworkers. What I came to realize from my research is that there actually is such thing as a so-called stupid question. It’s the question that you could have found the answer to on your own.

Now it’s easier said than done, because you as a newcomer will by definition not know as much as your coworkers. So how do you know if something’s a stupid question or is something that you could have figured out on your own? And so here, the unspoken rule is to do and show your homework. Where before pulling a coworker aside, try and look for the answer yourself, whether it’s by looking online, looking at the team folder, looking through your prior emails. And then once you’ve done your homework so to speak, then you go to the most junior coworker at your level, which is a process that I call bundle and escalate. Where you’re going one rung at a time, going up the chain of command until you can get your question answered.

When you approach this coworker, then you’re doing this whole song and dance of showing your homework. So instead of saying, “Alison, I’m trying to access this database. What’s the password?” In which case, I can’t tell, I can’t read your mind to know if this is a stupid question or an obvious question from your perspective. But what I can do is allay your worries by showing my homework. By saying, “Alison, I’m trying to get access to this database. I didn’t see the login in any of my onboarding materials. I was also looking at the team folder and didn’t find it there either. At least the one that was on there seems to have been changed recently. Do you happen to have it?”

What you’re doing here is giving a wink, wink, nudge, nudge that Alison, this could be a ‘stupid question.’ But because I’ve helped myself before involving you, this by definition is a good question.

ALISON BEARD: And we’ve definitely talked about this on the show before, but we are in the middle of a pandemic. So how much harder is it to execute on these rules? Do things like asking for help, researching the big picture by reaching out to coworkers and potential mentors, when you are working virtually? And some of our listeners I’m sure have started jobs virtually. So how do you make that work?

GORICK NG: I would say that it depends on whether you have a glass half full or a glass half empty perspective towards your three C’s. When it comes to competence for example, those who may have a more difficult time speaking up in meetings. Well, you now have an opportunity to bring your notes to every meeting and to peek at your notes without anyone noticing, because you have your script.

ALISON BEARD: I am peeking at my notes for this interview, I’ll confess.

GORICK NG: And no one has to know. At the same time, we no longer have the opportunity to bump into our coworkers in the office. In which case, you need to be more strategic than ever around what signals you’re sending to your coworkers around which questions you’re asking and not asking.

When it comes to commitment, pre-COVID when we were all in the office, some work environments might have what’s called face time, where you’re expected to be the first in the office, and the last out of the office, and always seen at your desk. And if you aren’t, that could reflect poorly on your commitment. Working from home, you no longer an opportunity to send those unspoken signals. In which case, you may be more scrutinized in some of those environments for your ability to respond promptly to emails and instant messages.

However, if you have a manager and a set of coworkers who may have seen their personal responsibilities balloon over the course of the pandemic, it may be the case that they’re more lenient than ever. Because they for the first time understand how difficult it can be to manage personal and the professional.

ALISON BEARD: And they’re more willing to delegate work if you’re willing to put your hand up for it.

GORICK NG: Absolutely, because they’re going through it with you. So there’s more empathy than ever.

ALISON BEARD: Apart from the pandemic, are there any other unique challenges that you think today’s younger workers face that we didn’t see a decade or two ago?

GORICK NG: I would say a big one is around generational differences in the workplace. Where we have so many generations working side by side, all of which have their own definitions of what counts as professional. If you are working for example in a tech company or a digital first organization, it may be the norm to bring in an iPad or a laptop into a meeting even before COVID. However if you worked in an environment that may be more traditional, it may be the case that bringing a digital device into a meeting can come across as if you’re not committed. In which case, the guidance here is to mirror your coworkers. Because they will set the standard often for what counts as professional and not. And who’s to say what is professional and not? Well, a lot of this is a function of how one was brought up and the culture in which they were brought up and now are expecting others to adhere to.

ALISON BEARD: So I do wonder then though, does following these unspoken rules for outsiders mean that you need to sort of code switch, go with the flow to fit in to your organization? Or is there a way to do all of this while staying true to yourself?

GORICK NG: My favorite rule in this is the first one, which is know when to embrace, reject, or bend the rules. And I felt like it was important to say this one first, because some of these rules are ones that I’d like to think should be the norm in every team around setting expectations, around communicating clearly and efficiently. But there are also others especially as it relates to compatibility that can very quickly become problematic.

When it comes to for example mirroring your coworkers, well yes. On the one hand, you might want to look left, look right as I did. And mirror those who are in a similar rank, who have a similar identity to you, and who are well-respected in the workplace to understand what they’re saying, and how they’re saying it, and how they’re coming across, if you don’t have coworkers who can speak like you, talk like you, and have the same backgrounds and interests as you do, the notion of code switching which you brought up very much comes to the forefront of how should I dress? Should I be wearing my hair in a certain way? Should I be wearing clothes that I don’t feel comfortable in?

I like to think about questions like this through the lens of three circles. Where in the middle, you have a circle that represents what you find to be sacred. One ring out of that circle is the circle of what you find to be negotiable. And then one ring out of that is what you are indifferent about. And to categorize different elements of who you are and how you show up into one of those three categories.

In my research, I found that different people will put different elements of their identity into different circles in this framework. And being mindful as well of whether you’re giving up something that may be sacred to you for the sake of keeping this job.

ALISON BEARD: I think the point about figuring out what feels right to you is very important. And to highlight something you brought up earlier, we aren’t talking about unspoken rules for majority white male corporate America. These are unspoken rules that sort of transcend all different types of organizations. Large, small. U.S., Asian, Indian, South American. So there are rules everywhere. And they’re not really about sort of fitting one particular mold, but more figuring out how your own organization works, and the rules of the road for that organization.

GORICK NG: Absolutely. One of the individuals I interviewed told me perhaps one of my favorite quotes in the book, which is that, “If they can’t take me for who I am, maybe this is a sign that this isn’t the right organization for me. And just because I got the job, doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to be happy in this job.” So very much in alignment with what you just said there.

To your point about many of these unspoken rules permeating across different geographies, and industries, and job types, that has been my observation as I do my interviews globally. However, what I have observed as well is that many of these so-called unspoken rules seem like common sense, but that are actually learned behaviors within upper middle-class white male dominated white color social circles, that happened to have made their way across global teams. Where to those who were born into the circle, these cultural norms might be gifted like an inheritance. But to those who were not born into these circles, people like me, the son of an immigrant working class single mother, these norms are not only things that we don’t know we don’t know, but that can very quickly become silent and invisible obstacles to upward mobility in the enterprise.

ALISON BEARD: There is a stereotype about millennials, our current younger generation, that they are getting frustrated because they don’t feel like they’re getting good assignments or advancing quickly enough. They sort of feel like cogs in a wheel, and that’s not why they are pursuing employment and work. They actually want it to be meaningful and to make a difference. So how do younger people starting out in their careers work toward better assignments, promotions, without seeming pushy?

GORICK NG: This was exactly the feeling that I had when I was starting out. I remember sitting at my college graduation and thinking to myself, “Wow. According to the graduation speaker, I have all the tools I need in my toolkit to go out there and change the world.” Only to have my expectations be dampened when I showed up on my first day. I quickly realized that this is a common sentiment among a lot of new grads.

However, there is an unspoken rule around showing that you can do the basics well before being entrusted to handle more important responsibilities. So as I think about the process of getting promoted and taking on more responsibilities, step one is to show that you can do your core tasks well. And then once you get to that point, signing up for more responsibilities where you’re asking questions like, “How can I be helpful? Is there anything I can do to be helpful?” Or even better, “Would it be helpful if I did X?” Where X is a certain task, a certain problem that you’ve identified, and that you’d like to take on, and that can expand your scope of responsibilities, and that may not necessarily have been assigned to you upfront.

And then in the third phase, and frankly this is a mindset that I would encourage everyone to be thinking about, even if they are still just starting out, is to be mindful of what matters to those who matter. What are the top priorities of your manager, your manager’s manager, your CEO? The more that you know what matters to those who matter, the more you can pick up assignments, and volunteer for assignments, or even propose assignments that matter. And the more that you can align yourself with work that matters, the more you will matter. And the more you matter, the more your organization will be compelled to invest in your career and your promotion.

ALISON BEARD: What more do younger workers need to understand about their manager’s jobs?

GORICK NG: That it’s difficult. In an earlier phase of my research, I actually ended up going to early career professionals and asking them to rant to me about their managers. And then turning around and asking –

ALISON BEARD: That sounds fun.

GORICK NG: It was a lot of fun. That was my favorite phase in this whole research project. Where I then turned around and asked managers to rant to me about the people that they manage. And what was surprising, but also maybe not surprising in retrospect is that we’re all looking for the same things. Where it’s not that your manager wants to micromanage you. It’s that micromanagement might be a symptom of a deeper root cause where maybe they’re anxious.

This anxiety could have been alleviated if you and your manager had clarified what I call what, how by, when. Where when you’re delegated a task, asking yourself and your manager, “What do I need to do? How do I need to do it? And by when do I need to do it?” Because if you don’t, you’ll end up doing the wrong work, doing it the wrong way, or not doing it on time. And as a result, undershooting your zone of competence, and then potentially getting micromanaged.

When I think about putting myself in the shoes of my managers, I now think back and think wow, there was so much more that my manager could have done to set expectations clearly so that I wasn’t ‘spinning my wheels.’ But there was also more that I could have done to ask for clarification in moments where I really didn’t know what was going on.

ALISON BEARD: And apart from doing that work before the work, outlining expectations, defining tasks, etc., is there anything else that you would want to tell managers, especially older ones from that sort of white male establishment background that we’re talking about that they should do differently for people who are new to the workforce and especially those who don’t come from that same background?

GORICK NG: The dialogue that I hope to spark is a dialogue around making the unspoken, spoken. So much of the conflict that I see in the workplace and misunderstandings are the result of managers expecting their subordinates to be able to read their minds. And this comes forward in terms of expectations for what someone is supposed to do in meetings, what someone is supposed to do as part of assignments, as part of how they should be reacting to feedback.

What’s been a humbling exercise over the course of this research has been to see just how many of these so-called unspoken rules start off for all of us, really. As things that we don’t know we don’t know, but that quickly morph into things that we consider common sense.

ALISON BEARD: That’s good for me to be reminded of that as an HBR editor.

GORICK NG: And for all of us where for example, I was delegating an assignment to a coworker recently. And it just occurred to me that if I were in that position now that I’ve done all this research, that I should be asking a question like, “When would you like to check in? Would it be helpful for me to put an outline together and for us to have a quick conversation at the end of the day or tomorrow?” Only to realize that when I was in this person’s shoes, I wasn’t asking those questions. Because it didn’t even occur to me that this was something that one had to do. In school, we’d just wait for the next assignment to come our way. And all the instructions are clearly written at the top. But over the course of this socialization process, we start observing how high performers function.

And we start adopting many of these talking points, mindsets, and approaches. To the point where you look around and you think, “Well, why aren’t you asking more thoughtful questions? Or why aren’t you managing expectations better?” Only to realize that it’s not because this person doesn’t know how to do their job. It’s that they didn’t know what they didn’t know. And all it takes sometimes is a conversation.

ALISON BEARD: Terrific. Well, I hope everyone starts taking that advice. I certainly will. Gorick, thanks so much for being on the show.

GORICK NG: Thank you so much, Alison. This was a lot of fun.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Gorick Ng, a career advisor at Harvard and the author of the book, The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe, we get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.

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