Despite the implicit nature of our expectations, we often apply them to others as if they were clearly the right thing, and sometimes even wield them over others as a weapon – especially when we’re frustrated. That is, until we’re the target of someone else’s implicit expectations, and then we cry foul – “that wasn’t clear to me!” Perhaps we declare the expectations unreasonable, or kick ourselves for not doing better. And ultimately, what else can we do? We must expect things of each other to work together effectively. So what else can be done but apply our implicit expectations as best we can?

Politics, the art of gracefully stepping on toes

Modern business practices try very hard to make expectations explicit, but when was the last time you checked your job description to see what was really expected of you? The reality is most expectations stay implicit in organizations today. Yet it’s easy to miss how many implicit expectations we hold, and how we habitually apply them. Ever get frustrated about how someone performed some activity, or what someone didn’t do when you thought they should, or whose input they missed? We run into such expectations all the time in organizational life, and most are held implicitly – often in the unconscious minds of the various players, or in the unwritten collective culture. Indeed, this is the very definition of culture – though inevitably not everyone will sense and interpret it the same way.

This leads to the inevitable conflicts of implicit expectations, and we have evolved many ways of dealing with them as well. We have leaders whose implicit expectations rule – we learn to figure them out and align with them first and foremost, and we look to these leaders to resolve other conflicts. As leaders, with others trying so hard to align with our expectations, we learn to temper ourselves and hold back, so we don’t accidentally create pressure or contribute to a disempowered culture. And across our peers we learn to engage in the process of building consensus or buy-in – a sometime-insidious political game to align expectations using personal relationships and force of character. These all may be healthy behaviors in a conventional organization – means of coping with the lack of an explicit governance process – though they often limit the organization and become quite taxing on the human relationships involved.

If it’s not explicit, no one has a right to expect it

To make these once-healthy behaviors no longer useful, we must first remove the implicit expectation that others should align with our implicit expectations (or anyone else’s). This requires an effective governance process – one which itself is documented explicitly, not wielded implicitly (e.g. captured in a written Constitution). The Holacracy® governance process generates clarity by defining explicit roles with explicit accountabilities, which grant explicit authority, and continuously evolving these to integrate learning and align with the organization’s ever-changing reality. This removes power from the implicit norms and instead vests power in an explicit process, and the expectations and authorities which result.

This allows for a powerful stance: with Holacracy at play, if the explicit governance doesn’t say it, no one has a right to expect it. And nor is there any obligation to align with anyone else’s implicit expectations. This doesn’t remove implicit expectations – we’ll always discover new expectations that we previously held unconsciously, often when someone breaches one of them. But it does remove all weight from those implicit expectations, and obsoletes the need to politically maneuver or to push them on others through force of personality. Instead, sensing our own implicit expectations becomes an opportunity to generate more clarity and evolve the organization to better express its purpose.

For us humans, this shift has a fascinating effect on the culture and personal relationships at play, and one I find incredibly liberating – our personal relationships are freed from being used (or abused) to navigate or enforce implicit expectations or persuade others of their merit. Our relationships become different from – or rather, differentiated from – the organizational drama and the needs of the work. Good explicit governance gets those things out of the way, and allows us to hold whatever personal relationships we choose to build as sacred, beyond the reach of organizational pressures and politics.


This article was originally published on January 25, 2012 at http://holacracy.org/blog/obsoleting-organizational-politics