Episode #37: Say You’ll Give & Take
Joining a culture is a two way street.
Hurrah! I made it to my 90-day mark at the new gig! Wrapped up in the new gig was all sorts of other new things: a new industry, a new working environment, and new colleagues.
While I’ve been happy with the success of my transition, I can’t help but wonder what helped make that transition successful. The truth is we all struggle to adapt to new environments. Those environments can be new jobs, new homes, or new relationships.
One thing new-joiners struggle with is understanding what defines the new world they find themselves in. What are the boundaries you should not cross? What boundaries are elastic and porous?
A common word people use when talking about the essence of a new environment is culture. Specifically, in our working lives, people refer the notion of company-culture.
But what do people mean when they speak of a company’s culture? If you ask, you’re likely to hear a set of examples: we tend to dress business casual but if an executive is on the floor put on the nice shoes; don’t schedule meetings on Fridays; call verticals “shops” and feel free to make meetings with whomever you want.
The problem with understanding company culture through example alone is that you might only pick up 3-4 examples of what constitutes your new company culture and those 3-4 elements are limited to whomever you spoke to. You’re only getting the tip of the cultural iceberg. To really immerse yourself in a new environment’s culture you need to dig deeper.
A productive way to understand a new culture is to view culture in terms of the visible and hidden symbols, norms, and values.
The benefits to breaking down culture into these three elements: symbols, norms and values can help you onboard to a new culture and job by helping you find out what you need to adapt to and what remains open for them to change. By recognizing that some things are embedded and hidden, and other things are broadcasted and visible, you can know where to look in your search.
A better way to see this breakdown is sketched out in my drawing below of the culture pyramid (an adaptation taken from Michael Watkins’ book The First 90 Days).
Most visible include a culture’s symbols. Symbols include the company branding (logos, fonts, colors, etc.,) and verbiage (what gets said, how often, and in what ways).
Sometimes visible, and sometimes not, are a culture’s norms. Norms and patterns of behavior speaks to how people perform, how often, and in what manner.
Less visible and sometimes hidden, especially to newcomers, are the fundamental assumptions guiding a culture. These include the core philosophies guiding the culture that inform nearly everything—including the behaviors and symbols used.
When joining a new culture, whether a company culture, a family culture, or a regional culture, it’s helpful to start at the base and uncover first what’s hidden and then mapping those findings onto what’s visible.
Ask these questions to guide your entry though change and adaptation to new cultural norms:
What is valued most here? What is valued least?
How do people act in line with those values?
How are those values communicated visually in that culture’s symbols?
Just keep in mind: not every cultural value is a positive one! As you uncover what matters to a place you might discover tug-and-pull between what is presented as a cultural value and what is actually represented in the day-to-day of a place.
In other words-culture is in flux. By taking a productive approach to discovering the hidden and visible conflicts embedded in any culture, you can find ways to assimilate what makes sense to you and seek to change what doesn’t sit right.
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