A recent trip to Arizona reminded me how complex culture is across this country, and how much of it is revealed by ordinary aspects of everyday life. In Tucson Arizona, highways are smooth and elegantly designed, and not surprisingly, there are no frost heaves! Drivers drive close to the speed limit, rather than 5 or 10 miles over it. Yet, like many of us, I have been in other states where the norm appears to be more aggressive and competitive. Some drivers refuse to pull over for others entering the highway, despite a disappearing on-ramp. Some states “economize” by making on-ramps serve double duty as off- ramps, which means that rapidly accelerating cars are sharing space with those that are slowing down. Use of turn signals may be absent, or yellow lights ignored, or rolling stops may be common, depending on a region’s “road culture.” We have all observed these phenomena, and some states and cities have the reputation for having terrible drivers or misbehaving pedestrians. I have lived and worked in a dozen different states and one foreign country and have my personal list –what’s yours?
You might argue that this is a fairly silly way to think about culture, although it is something we all have experience with. Culture is a highly complex field of study with a huge presence on the web. But identifying the culture that you are working in is very important, especially when starting a new job. So beyond driving patterns, how do you identify the culture in your new environment and work place?
The most important rule of thumb I have learned is: Pay Attention!
I start my observations with the formal:
- What is the organization’s structure? Is there an org chart? Is it flat? Hierarchical? Team based? And, then, how does it REALLY work?
- Are there written policies? Are they followed?
- What happens at meetings? Do people show up on time? Is there an agenda? Are the meetings useful?
A disconnect between formal documents about structure or rules and how they are actually practiced is a signal that something needs attention. Are the policies outdated? Illegal? Arbitrary? Or are they good up-to-date policies that are not honored? It’s the same with the org chart: If everyone ignores boss X, and goes right to X’s supervisor, you need to ask yourself what is going on? Do people routinely make end runs around the org structure? Is there a problem?
Then, I try to observe informal interactions:
- How do people address each other? There are still some professions, places, and regions, especially in other countries, where people do NOT routinely use first names. When is it appropriate to do so? Do executives insist on titles, but call staff by their first names? “Name calling” will tell you a lot about an organization!
- Who eats lunch with whom, or does everyone eat at their desks?
- What celebrations are there? How are the organization’s successes celebrated? An annual holiday party? A picnic? A lunch? Does the office celebrate birthdays or the anniversary of date of hire?
I’ve seen the range there: One president sent me a birthday card, which very much surprised me– and it really didn’t feel appropriate since we saw each other only a few times a year. Another organization gave out 5 year service pins. Sigh. I once was a new manager in an organization that celebrated nothing, which, among other things, reflected a culture where people felt unappreciated and suspicious. I instituted an annual “reception,” with refreshments, candle light, music, and wine–out of my pocket– to celebrate individuals’ accomplishments. Despite pushback and suspicion at first, over a number of years it became an eagerly anticipated event. Although I left that workplace years ago, they still hold the reception every year.
Finally, how are raises, resources and perqs distributed? In my view, some ways are more productive and fairer than others:
- Do prime vacation weeks go to those with the most seniority? First come, first served? Grace and favor? To those with kids? Random assignment?
- Who gets new computers, prime office space, or new office furniture?
- And raises? What are raises or bonuses REALLY based on?
While there is a lot more to culture than these few examples, of course, being successful in the workplace means being attuned to its culture. If it is a good one, celebrate and nurture it! If it is not, your awareness can help you find ways to nudge it into more productive practices, depending on your role and responsibilities. But be aware that it can take many years to change a negative work culture; and it is nearly impossible to change a pathological one.