José Ramirez is a middling shortstop for the Cleveland Indians, but somehow in the last week of the regular season in a game against the Minnesota Twins he managed to make headlines and enemies with one simple act. After hitting a home run, a rare occurrence for him, Ramirez did the unforgivable: a bat flip. In baseball dogma, that simple, swashbuckling act of celebration is akin to insulting the opposing team’s mothers, sisters, and dogs. Why? Is there a rule against it? Is it written in some player handbook somewhere that bat-flipping in celebration is anathema? Nope. It’s an unwritten rule.
All sports have unwritten rules, and often they’re enforced by players and coaches more stringently than the actual rules. (Although the NFL has managed to write most of these unwritten rules down, effectively legislating expressiveness and celebration out of pro football.) Usually these unwritten rules have to do with what kinds of privileges or even calls from officials young players receive. They revolve around decorum and culture, usually not actual game play. Unwritten rules reflect a team’s values.
Just like sports, every organization has unwritten rules. So do families. So do you and I. We all do certain things and have certain responses that indicate what really matters to us, no matter what we say. A family may talk about positivity and thankfulness but be a bunch of complainers and critics. Our instinctive reactions are the window into our unwritten rules, how we act when we don’t have time to prepare or think or script a response.
Unwritten rules tend to reflect negative values and can lead to an oppressive culture. That’s because good and uplifting values don’t just happen. They must be fostered, expressed, protected, and furthered.
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Actual values are the ones that play out in every day life. Every organization and person has aspirational values—what we aspire to be and reflect—but often those don’t line up with the actual values. An organization may claim to pursue innovation but instead have a culture of “we’ve never done it that way” stemming from unwritten rules about risk-taking and tradition. The same is true for you and me.
We may talk big about serving Christ, being good spouses or parents, valuing family time, and being invested in church. But we live by unwritten rules that lead to apathy, laziness, or workaholism. For individuals, these rules are subtle enough we don’t think of them as rules, but we respond them to them as if they are.
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