I was having a conversation with a coworker a while back about rules and expectations and what it means to be part of a team. He wants to work in an environment where expectations are clear, where his contributions are acknowledged and praised, and where his shortcomings are pointed out and corrected. Further, he wanted the same from the rest of his team, including his manager: to see clearly what is expected of them, whether they’ve lived up to their expectations, and how they are struggling to improve.

Setting aside whether this kind of environment works for everyone, I think it’s fair to say that this situation is rare. As a rule, expectations are implied rather than stated outright. Deviations from expectation are rewarded or punished inconsistently, disproportionately, too late, and with varying degrees of publicity. Few acknowledge where they fall short or seek help shoring up their weaknesses.

Yet we all keep chugging along, don’t we?

Back to my coworker. He was making an assumption that this kind of explicitness is equivalent to good feelings, ability to cooperate, and high productivity. An assumption that vagueness necessarily leads to disquiet, dischord, and inefficiency. And for him I think this is basically right. But my intuitions are different, and I suspect that for many this idea feels exactly backwards.

A diagram:

                            | cooperation and            
                            | productivity               
                     GUESS  |  ASK / TELL                
                   CULTURE  |  CULTURE                   
   implicit                 |                 explicit   
   rules            DOUBLE  |  AUTHORITAH        rules   
                      BIND  |                            
                            | inability to cooperate,    
                            | inefficiency                

In the 2×2 above, the x axis represents the explicitness or legibility of the rules and expectations that team members operate by. The y axis represents good feelings, productivity, and all that. And I suspect that there are two kinds of people in this world: those like my coworker who see a positive correlation and (I am guessing more commonly) those who see a negative correlation. We’ll loosely call them askers and guessers, based on where they’d prefer to be in the 2×2.

Askers see one dimension ranging from the mind games of the lower left to rational efficiency in the upper right. Guessers also see one dimension, ranging from top-down authoritarian hell in the lower right to the fluid, intuitive autonomy of the upper left.

Askers worry about disappointing their coworkers and boss without being told about it. They worry that their hard work won’t be recognized (in both senses of the word) and that maybe they’ve been trying to improve at the wrong thing all along.

Guessers worry that they’ll be told how to do their job, that they’ll be forced through bureaucratic hoops, or that a performance metric imposed from above won’t reflect the value they contribute and will be used against them.

As you can tell, I’m not in either camp: I see in two dimensions rather than one. From my enlightened flatland perspective I’d like to take a stab at what each side is missing. Askers – and I’ll admit I tend to lean in this direction despite having survived and even thrived in guess cultures for most of my career – askers miss out on what James Scott in Seeing Like a State calls metis: a set of practices and traditions built out of gradual evolutionary processes, generally opaque to explication, often superstitious or only applicable in narrow domains. Yet in these domains metis is often the best guide to effective practice. Top-down processes tend to impose legibility (another Scott term), which drives out metis (which can’t after all explain itself to outsiders) and causes shifts in power and control. Guessers are reasonable for being wary of such changes.

Guessers for their part miss out on the immense coordinating power of rational communication. They also underestimate how much it’s possible to improve at skills they’re not naturally inclined towards, with training and persistent practice. There seems to be an assumption that the upper left and upper right quadrants of the 2×2 enjoy the same level of success, but in my experience the most wildly successful teams sit comfortably (or uncomfortably?) in the upper right.

Perhaps the most concerning thing that Askers miss is the legitimate Guesser fear of discovering misalignment of values within a team. The kind of wild performance of outstanding teams only occurs with a shared vision, when each member understands and feels strongly about the common goal. Teams with exposed value misalignment fall apart quickly.

Then again, maybe that’s better for all involved.

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