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by Howie Jacobson | March 10, 2009


Recently I taught "soft skills" to a group of new IT associates at a large investment firm. The group was unbelievably impressive: global, diverse in every way imaginable, full of the brightest and quickest people I'm ever likely to meet. For the 12-week "boot camp," they were learning business and financial skills, programming, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I'll soon reveal my ignorance about if I pretend to understand. They were eating this stuff up: intense days of technical instruction preparing them for a lucrative career doing what they love.

I taught them for five half-days during the 12 weeks. Every other week or so I would present career development, communication, teamwork, project management, or something like that. For the company, this was a standard curriculum, a way of inculcating the culture and introducing some of the skills and attitudes that the company's stars possessed. For the learners, it was something else entirely. Most of them were straight out of college. This was their first "real," full-time job. Now everything they had learned in school was going to be put to the test.

Well, not exactly. The technical skills and knowledge acquired during the school years had landed them this job, and were the cornerstones upon which their new knowledge was built. What was going to get them into trouble, and what I was trying to undo, was the unspoken code of behavior that reigns in the classroom but not the cubicle. Two examples:~Teamwork

We've all worked in teams on academic projects. Most people hate them. Strong performers feel they're doing all the work. Quiet or timid members get stepped on. Conflicts get in the way of the "real" work. Students' grades are dependent on other people, rather than themselves.

Teachers often say, "OK, you four are a team. You have 45 minutes to do X." In such situations, the task always takes precedence over group dynamics. Any negotiation or discussion that doesn't lead to speedy results is shunned. Attention to feelings and perceptions is a fatal waste of time. So the process inevitably frustrates. Teams can't be legislated. They are formed through common goals, trust, and ongoing communication. Declaring a team is like declaring two strangers "a couple."

So whether the teacher or professor assigns the teams or we self-select, our first team meeting is always the same. We divide up the tasks so that the team never has to meet again. This is the most efficient and less painful way of working as a team.

Of course, we're not learning anything about teamwork, except that we should avoid it. At work, most of us can't avoid it. We work in teams not because we want to achieve that buddy-buddy feeling with our co-workers, but because our work depends on other people. If I have to rely on someone else for me to be successful, we had better be able to trust and communicate with each other. And we had better make sure we're trying to create the same thing.~Clarifying expectations and managing one's career

As I said, these new associates were really smart. I'm sure they all got terrific grades all through school and college. One of the lines they used to sort the important from the trivial was, "Will this be on the test?" Most teachers don't like this line. They hear, "I don't care about learning this material. I only care about getting a good grade."

So many of us learn not to ask what is expected of us. It's considered grade-grubbing and ugly. Instead, we make friends with people who take lots of legible notes, and study our butts off the night before the test. If we're really good, we can get away with projects and papers that don't follow the teacher's instructions, but win us good grades for creativity and originality. (When I was a college teacher, I would reward anyone who didn't turn in the same damn term paper. Who can read 65 versions of the same information?)

So what are we learning? Not to clarify expectations. As if finding out exactly what is expected of us is demeaning. As if guessing and fudging are better. Try this thought experiment: Pretend your teacher or professor was going to be paid based on the absolute performance of his or her students. No grading on a curve. No extra credit. Now how eager would he or she be to convey expectations?

One of the most difficult behavioral transitions from school to work is the need to clarify what is expected of us. We don't learn it until we do what we assume our boss wanted, only to find out that our mistaken assumption has cost our team (see above) three days of work. By then, in some organizations, it's too late.

Your turn

What other unspoken rules changed when you moved from school to work? How did you learn the new rules? How hard was it to break the old habits? Any good horror stories? Send them to me.

Howie Jacobson is the Director of Voice Bregman Partners, Inc., an organizational change consulting firm. Contact him at or visit Bregman Partners on the web at


Filed Under: Workplace Issues