Culture Cues – Teach Them To Survive!

My theory is that we as people can be trained in a very similar fashion to cats. In fact a joke I’ve shared with folks when I enter a new team is that I need to have a spray bottle of water on my desk for learning opportunities. Each time I open my mouth to share something that is out of place in the new abode, squirt! Each time I attempt to live out my prior company culture, forgetting I’m somewhere new, squirt! Each time I commit any kind of company cultural faux pas, squirt!

All joking aside, the reality is that cultures vary and probably the most critical component to the corporate success formula other than being smart is getting the culture. The reality is that we as people are quirky, varied, imperfect and gosh darn it we are not robots and we can be moody. I suppose that is why I chose HR – because I am a student of the human condition and oddly I really enjoy working with the idiosyncrasies of folks. When there’s a tough nut to crack (eg a super difficult person who I can’t reach), I kinda enjoy the opportunity to try to win even a connection with them. You see the reality is that people are all different. I may like vanilla ice cream. You may prefer pistaccio. Who is to say one is better than the other? Nobody is to say. However, I best be eating pistachio ice cream and not vanilla if I choose to join a pistachio loving culture.

Point being, as companies are full of people, and people are unique, there comes to be a unique and specific culture at each company. As a case in point, here are just a few things that I have experienced in different cultures. Each one if transferred to another culture may be means for serious political fallout and very possibly even formal discipline.

1. We had a couch and video games in the main entry space of the office for employees’ fun and enjoyment (message: fun is a serious value here and we appeal to the Gen Y culture we often hire based on the field we’re in)
2. I was required to don a hat and sword for employee orientations (message: this is a charismatic place so get on board and show your drama if you are a leader here)
3. Calling a boss without going through the EA was major taboo; and meetings occurred no more than 1-2x monthly (message: be self sufficient and don’t bug the boss with any minor stuff)
4. Neglecting to run even the most minute detail past a boss could result in significant negative repercussion (message: leadership is a bit tighter, centralized decision making is preferred)
5. Failing to hug someone or pat someone on the back at work at least once a week was frowned upon (message: we are an affectionate workplace and it is expected that you show you care… I am sure the HR folks reading this are cringing right now)
6. Hugging someone at work or even a pat on the back might result in a hostile work environment claim (message: we are a business professional environment and take HR protocol seriously)
7. Walking the floor frequently to chit chat with employees is expected of leaders (message: engagement and friendly environment matter to us)
8. Walking the floor frequently to chit chat with employees is frowned upon (message: we are a high performance, no nonsense place and should not have too much levity at work)
9. Upon meeting with a boss during weekly meetings one must update a task list and personal learning plan to show growth in personal skills (message: we are a learning culture)
10. Working at home is encouraged and common and there is no firm absence policy (message: we want to be progressive and see balance)
11. Working at home is seen as irresponsible and unnecessary (message: we are more conservative and traditional with work style)
12. Specific food venues and sequence of events is expected at employee gatherings (message: formality matters and if you are not on board you won’t fit in)

The list could go on, but the above are all examples of varying expectations that I have encountered in my seventeen years of working. These expectations all held by very successful companies that happened to operate differently. I guarantee you however that nobody gave me a rule book on video games, pats on the back, level of detail one must share with a boss or not share with a boss, expectations of proceedings at gatherings, and so forth on day one. I will tell you that it took about a dozen or so verbal squirts to get it when transitioning from one extreme to another.

All to say, one of the absolutely most critical things we can be doing to develop new employees is to tell them the unspoken stuff. Just like a mother teaches her small child not to pick his nose in public or chew with her mouth open, we too need to lead people to learn the ways of the workplace. Nobody wants to be stuck in the middle of a meeting with an I’m clueless sign on his back. So love your people enough to go there.

One little practical way of doing this is by providing a buddy for the early months. This buddy should not be a boss or person of authority. If it is, the buddy code is essentially broken. The whole idea of a buddy is that someone at the same level, comfortable and approachable be there to help guide the newcomer. A buddy will share the subtle behaviors in a non threatening way. When choosing a buddy, make sure it is a person with strong verbal skills, patience and a people-oriented personality.

Happy culture learning! If you teach them, they can adapt!

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