How Covert Are Your 10 Commandments?


At the recent Special Person’s Day at my twins’ Solomon Schechter school, my mother-in-law and aunt sat down with the kids to work with them on the project of the morning: drafting the “10 Commandments” of our family. Based on their understanding that the 10 Commandments provided a rule book – a behavioral code of conduct – 11 year old Jacob and Sophie got to work:

  1. What happens at Grandma’s house stays at Grandma’s house.
  2. No TV during mealtime except during the Super Bowl.
  3. Don’t wake Grandma before 9:30 am.
  4. Don’t wear shorts if it is freezing out.
  5. In vehicles you must wear a seatbelt at all times.
  6. Do homework before watching TV.
  7. Eat protein at every meal.
  8. Shower every day.
  9. Eat kosher even if you are in China.
  10. No internet without permission or supervision.

When I saw the list, three things occurred to me: First, that it was completely true. Second, that it was pretty bland, with its focus on internet safety, kashrut consistency, and basic hygiene. And third, that this list was a representation of the overt, readily discussed behaviors and attitudes in our family. We talk about these things openly and regularly. There wasn’t a single thing on their 10 Commandments where I might be tempted to say, “Thou shalt not discuss such matters in public.” Like what? Well, I’m not going to discuss such matters in public, of course, but some common examples might include:

At home:

· Don’t ask dad for money, ask mom.

· Don’t bring up why we never see or hear from Uncle Matt.

· Pretend that mom doesn’t smoke.

At work:

· Jane can come in late without reprimand; the rest of us can’t.

· Don’t knock on Phil’s closed door after he has met with the boss.

· You can ask for a flexible schedule, but you’ll no longer be considered truly committed.

In non-profit organizations

· Undersell the responsibilities of board service when recruiting or we won’t get anyone to join.

· Tell prospects that involvement isn’t about the money or they’ll get scared off.

· You are supposed to feel lucky to work here (at any salary) because you should feel like you’d do this work anyway as a volunteer.

These “covert commandments” are the quiet truths that shape the attitudes, actions and inactions of a family, team, or organization – and in fact, are far from secret. Everybody knows them, everybody feels them, but nobody is talking about them. One of my all-time favorite cartoons from New Yorker magazine depicts a group of men sitting around a board table, with the caption, “We seemed to have reached agreement on the agenda. Now let’s move on to the hidden agenda.” Just as this meeting’s “hidden agenda” was far from hush-hush, our covert commandments are often the worst kept secrets in the house or office – the proverbial elephant in the room.

What happens when we commit to keeping our commandments covert? Sometimes they get so unwieldy that they begin to rule our lives. In order to keep the unspoken truths under wraps, we have to engage in unproductive behaviors. Think about it: how many times have you wasted time and energy working around someone because the covert commandment was “don’t both Sherri with this – she’ll bite your head off”? What’s worse is that covert commandments are contagious – demotivation and deception spread through the family, team or organization like head lice in sleep-away camp. What does this look like? Secret conversations, deal-making, suspicious behaviors and attitudes, gossip, implied (or explicit) favoritism – and most importantly, the message that pretending is the way we do business around here.

Eventually, we start to recognize that the amount of energy it takes to not talk about things may be greater than the amount of energy it would take to address them once and for all. Furthermore, when we are willing to name the covert commandments in an overt way, we just might increase the intimacy, trust and connection in our personal and professional relationships.

Now, that’s not to say that every covert commandment should be addressed head-on. There is a time and a place for the unspoken to remain just that way. Some things are better left unsaid in the short-term for the good of the long-term relationship. Which things? That’s up to you to do a cost-benefit analysis of the potential risks and rewards for bringing something up. But if there is a tremendous amount of pain, resentment and mistrust caused by not saying anything, it just might be worth the gamble. One word of advice: any discussion of covert commandments should be done one-on-one, person-to-person, and privately. It might feel safer to say, “We ALL feel that you favor Jim around here,” but you’re less likely to get a positive response from someone who is feeling attacked by an angry mob.