There are few experiences as humbling as starting a new job. Overnight, you are transformed from a fully competent contributor to an unproven rookie. You enter a new world, where the language, customs and culture are unfamiliar. The mental ‘maps’ you’ve used to navigate your past environment are of limited help; in fact, they may lead you astray. Though certain practices, interactions or cues you encounter might look like ones you’ve experienced before, in this new landscape they may carry a very different meaning than what you assume.
In this respect, entering a new organisation is profoundly similar to moving to a foreign country. I should know. When I was 13 years old, one of many moves with my family led us to Saudi Arabia, where we lived for 5 years. Even now, I can play the scenes of our arrival and first days in my head like a video recording. The chaotic airport, the oppressively hot night air, the strange smells and staccato Arabic enveloping us, the desolate nothingness of the desert highway at night, and the gecko perched near our new front door as if to welcome us. Whether a new organisation, or a new country, the complete immersion into a different culture feels a lot like waking up in a Picasso painting.
Cultural Misinterpretation in Saudi Arabia
In our first few weeks in Saudi, my parents pushed forward to explore our new home. Wandering the streets of a nearby shopping town, my Dad stopped at a hardware store to ask for directions. The owner, a helpful Saudi man, gently held my Dad’s hand as he walked us down the street, explaining how to best reach our destination. Later, we’d come to realise that Saudi men frequently held hands in what is accepted as a chaste symbol of respect and affection. But at the time we were bewildered; was the hardware guy in Al Khobar hitting on my Dad?
Years later my father received a beautiful ceremonial sword from a direct report being considered for promotion at his organisation in Saudi Arabia. Was this a bribe? A threat? Neither was acceptable to my Dad but a colleague counseled him that returning it would be a great insult. Naturally, it is buried in some basement storage room to this day, an artifact of national and organizational culture confusion.
The Dangerous Oversimplification of Organizational Culture
I’ve written (more than once) about what organizational culture is, and how too often we oversimplify it in comparison to more robust approaches to culture in a larger sense – that of nations, societies or ethnic groups. I feel strongly that this is a mistake, as anthropological and ethnographic theories and methodologies could do much to inform a deeper and more nuanced approach to organizational culture. This has been reinforced as I recently entered a new organisation and sensed the vast underlying differences between its culture and the one I’d just left. The popular idea espoused by many in the management world today that a short survey or handful of interviews might decode and ‘diagnose’ an organisation’s culture feels more misguided to me now than ever before.
Accurately interpreting and assigning meaning to cultural features is really difficult. When we are outsiders to a culture, by necessity we view its features through our own cultural lens. This can lead to painful missteps and misinterpretations. We can sense differences but can’t yet understand their significance or the underlying assumptions that drive them. By contrast, once we have fully assimilated into a culture, we have difficulty objectively assessing how it differs from other cultures, or pinpointing what underlying cultural assumptions we have come to accept as our own.
Ethnologists who study cultures have traditionally tried to walk the fine line between these two states of ‘outsider’ and ‘member’ by embedding themselves within the culture they are studying but still maintaining an intellectual distance to allow them to objectively interpret what they observe (whether this is possible, or even desirable is a postmodern ethnographic discussion far beyond the scope of this post). What is relevant to this discussion is the acceptance that as an organizational newbie, interpretation is mostly a guessing game, which we are likely to get profoundly wrong.
Culture Misinterpretation in the Workplace
The feeling of cultural vertigo created by my early experiences in Saudi Arabia is remarkably similar to how I’ve felt during subsequent moments of organizational culture confusion. A prime example is the first time I experienced yelling in a professional environment (now many years ago). This involved two senior members of an organisation I had just joined, and a rafter-raising shouting match they engaged in near my cubicle. I was terrified. What did this mean? Was it going to escalate? Should I call security? My colleagues, on the other hand, might as well have been watching golf. I came to learn that this was a commonly tolerated way of communicating one’s viewpoint in that environment, accepted because of ‘the passion’ ascribed to senior executives about the work they were doing.
A smaller, but equally significant example of how culture helps us assign meaning to others’ actions is the use of the Cc: and Bcc: fields in an e-mail (I’m absolutely serious). In any organisation, the ‘how’ of getting work done is often more challenging than understanding ‘what’ to do. It is there that we must navigate the informal power structure that exists in every organisation, as well as understand norms of communication and shared underlying assumptions about work, and even human nature. In some organisations, copying someone’s boss on an e-mail request is simply an “FYI’. Elsewhere it might be seen as a heavy-handed attempt to circumvent the formal org structure and bully someone into prioritizing your request.
The Moral of the Story
Ultimately my point is cautionary: culture is complex. Whether we are new members of an organisation, organizational culture ‘experts’, or emigrants to another country, overlooking the deep nature of culture is counter-productive and naïve. It is hubris to assume that we can walk into an organisation and accurately assign meaning and significance to what we see, because we all bring our own cultural lenses and biases to that process. I know that there are those who would disagree with me on this- they’d say that they have a foolproof approach to decoding organizational culture, that they’ve got it all figured out. And I’d be most interested in hearing from those people…ideally a few months after they’ve joined a new organisation, or settled in a new country.