What will separate you from the rest early in your career? The ability to take ownership, manage expectations, navigate people dynamics, and communicate professionally—skills that school doesn't teach.
Most career guides assume that you already know how the working world works. But if you're starting your very first job or taking a job in a new company, you might not know all the unspoken rules that determine who gets ahead and who doesn't. In The Unspoken Rules, you'll learn the basic workplace skills necessary for success.
From the author: "Why didn't anyone ever tell me this?!
I've lost count of the number of times I've asked myself this question. As the son of a single mother who dropped out of school at the age of twelve to work in a sewing-machine factory, I missed the lesson on the unspoken rules of the professional workplace. Instead, I learned my lesson the hard way—through trial and error.
Now I'm on a mission to discover and decode the unspoken rules of work and share them with others.
Over the last four years, I've interviewed over five hundred interns, early career professionals, managers, and executives, from HR to finance, law firms to tech companies, across the globe. My conversations revolved around three key topics:
What are the most common mistakes early-career professionals make at work?
What would you do differently if you could relive your first years on the job?
What do you think separates top performers from mediocre ones?
After testing the advice I gathered from these hundreds of interviews, I started coaching other early-career professionals. Now I'm distilling everything I've learned into a step-by-step guide called The Unspoken Rules. We all have what it takes to be a top performer. It begins with mastering the unspoken rules."
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Before we dive in, let’s discuss a framework that will carry us through the entire book: the Three Cs—competence, commitment, and compatibility. The minute you step into a new role is the minute your managers, coworkers, and clients will ask themselves three questions:
“Can you do the job well?” (Are you competent?)
“Are you excited to be here?” (Are you committed?)
“Do you get along with us?” (Are you compatible?)
Your job is to convince your managers, coworkers, and clients to answer “Yes!” to all three questions. Prove that you are competent, and people will want to offer you more important responsibilities. Prove that you are committed, and people will want to invest in you. Prove that you are compatible, and people will want to work with you. Demonstrate all three Cs as seen in figure 1-1, and you’ll maximize your chances of building trust, unlocking opportunity, and getting closer to achieving your career goals.
The Three Cs: Competence, commitment, and compatibility
It’s not enough to show one or two of the Three Cs. You need all three. Otherwise, people won’t trust you with important assignments, won’t feel like you are worth their time and investment, or won’t want to spend time with you (figure 1-2).
Let’s begin by defining each C and discussing why they can be so challenging—and yet so important—to navigate.
How people think about your Three Cs
Competence means you can do your job fully, accurately, and promptly without needing to be micromanaged—and without making others look bad. This means not undershooting to the point of looking clueless and not overshooting to the point of looking overbearing.
A college student I met had landed a remote market research internship at a startup during the school year. Midway through her semester, she got busy with her classes. She hadn’t started the latest research project she was supposed to have already finished. Her manager kept calling and emailing, but she didn’t pick up the phone or reply for over a week. She was planning to catch up on her work after her midterms. But before she could catch up, she was fired—for not communicating and, as a result, looking clueless.
Another time, a recent graduate of a teacher training program had been hired by a high school. In conversations with others in his department, he kept saying, “In my training we learned about 5E Lesson Planning. Did you know about this? It’s better than the old way of lesson planning, and students like it more.” The veteran teachers crossed their arms and shot him a “get away from me” look. Before long, he acquired a reputation for being a naive know-it-all from people seeing him as overbearing.
The challenge with competence
True competence can be difficult to measure. It’s easy if you’re a baker or coder; one simply has to taste your cake or test your code. But for many jobs—where much of your day is spent interacting with people—measuring competence isn’t easy at all.
In the absence of clearly measurable outputs, managers often rely on inputs—like how much progress it looks like you are making on a project, how confidently you speak in meetings, and how well you promote yourself. It’s no surprise, then, that the people who get promoted or who get the highest-profile assignments aren’t always the most competent—even within organizations that claim to be meritocracies. Your actual competence still matters, but, as we’ll discuss later in this guide, your perceived competence can be just as important.
Commitment means you are fully present and eager to help your team achieve its goals—but not so eager that you put others on the defensive. This means not undershooting to the point of looking apathetic and not overshooting to the point of looking threatening.
A summer camp counselor was accused of being lazy by the camp director despite working hard and taking on extra tasks. One of his fellow counselors pulled him aside and helped him see that the issue wasn’t his lack of effort; it was his lack of enthusiasm. He looked mellow and often had his phone out. His fellow counselors, on the other hand, behaved like they were in a musical about peppy camp counselors. Over the following weeks, this counselor threw on a smile, walked faster, and added a spring to his step. To his surprise, the director started taking him seriously—all because he no longer looked apathetic.
Another time, a college student had gotten an internship at an investment bank. Anytime he got his own work done early, he’d start doing his teammates’ work without asking. He sometimes even corrected his manager in front of higher-ups. In the end, he was one of two interns who didn’t receive a full-time job offer—all from being threatening.
The challenge with commitment
The struggle with commitment is the same as the struggle with competence: perception and reality don’t always align. Just because you are committed doesn’t mean people perceive you to be committed. Sometimes, little actions like showing up late, looking away on video chat, not volunteering for tasks, not speaking up enough, or not replying to emails as quickly as your coworkers do can be enough to cast doubt on how committed you are.
It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s perceived. It’s even harder if you work in a system that mistakes perception for reality and where people prioritize style over substance. This is not to say that you should want to stay in your job forever, though. Your first job likely won’t be your last job. People get that. Your interests and goals can change. People get that too. But people do expect a certain level of perceived commitment, which we will discuss further in this book.
Compatibility means you make others comfortable and eager to be around you—without coming across as inauthentic or trying too hard. This means not undershooting to the point of looking passive and not overshooting to the point of looking like a poser.
One time, a cashier at a movie theater was told by her manager to be more of a “team player.” She was confused. She always showed up to work on time and dealt with customers politely. But it wasn’t enough because she hardly smiled and didn’t make small talk with her manager as her coworkers did. She didn’t pass her probation period—all because she looked passive and withdrawn.
Another time, a recent graduate of an American MBA program joined a corporate strategy team at an energy company in Asia. One day, he attended a supplier presentation with some senior coworkers. At the end of the presentation, the vendor asked, “Any questions?” The room went silent. Not realizing that his coworkers were following a cultural norm of waiting for the most senior person to speak first, he blurted, “Well, if none of you have questions, I’ve got a question.” His coworkers all rolled their eyes—and saw him as a poser.
The challenge with compatibility
What’s challenging about compatibility is that it depends on whom you’re with and what norms and unconscious biases they have. People like people who are similar to themselves, so they tend to hire, hang around, and promote those who look like, talk like, and have the same backgrounds and interests as they do.1 And because these biases can be unconscious, it’s easy for even well-meaning people to treat others unfairly without realizing it. People might claim that someone is not a “cultural fit” when they are really judging the person’s clothes, accent, mannerisms, body weight, hobbies, or any other element of the person’s identity.2
If you are joining a team where everyone looks like you, sounds like you, behaves like you, and has experiences and worldviews similar to yours, then you may never think twice about your identity. But if you are joining a team where people are different from you, whether in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, gender, sex, sexual orientation, dis/ability, religion, age, degree of introversion or extroversion, or other characteristics, then your identity can influence not only how others judge your Three Cs but also how you see yourself.
When I first entered the workplace, self-doubt set in almost immediately. Being of Asian descent and defying the “model minority” myth that all Asians must be timid and good at math, I couldn’t keep up with the many data projects I was being assigned over my non-Asian coworkers. As someone who was never taught how to send professional emails, I couldn’t keep up ...
Table of contents
Citation styles for The Unspoken Rules
APA 6 Citation
Ng, G. (2021). The Unspoken Rules ([edition unavailable]). Harvard Business Review Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1621249/the-unspoken-rules-secrets-to-starting-your-career-off-right-pdf (Original work published 2021)
Ng, Gorick. (2021) 2021. The Unspoken Rules. [Edition unavailable]. Harvard Business Review Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/1621249/the-unspoken-rules-secrets-to-starting-your-career-off-right-pdf.
Ng, G. (2021) The Unspoken Rules. [edition unavailable]. Harvard Business Review Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1621249/the-unspoken-rules-secrets-to-starting-your-career-off-right-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Ng, Gorick. The Unspoken Rules. [edition unavailable]. Harvard Business Review Press, 2021. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.