A Whole New Business Culture

Dec 22, 2010

by Anita Attridge ME Today

Joining a new company can be like moving to a foreign country. You’ll find distinctive customs, dress, language, ideas, and rules. To succeed, you’ll need to adapt–especially if your new employer’s approaches are quite different from your previous work situation.

Make it a priority to learn how employees interact and work in your new location. Remember, evaluations for recognition, compensation, rewards and promotion will reflect how well you perform in the "organizational culture."

What is organizational culture? It’s each employer’s set of written and unwritten rules under which people perform their work jobs. Unspoken rules, based on shared values and beliefs, form its foundation. Understanding organizational culture is as important as knowing policies and procedures. Ignoring it can thwart your career progress.

What brings success in one company may impede you in another. For example, in General Electric’s firm organizational culture, managers are expected to use company processes, unquestioningly. Xerox’s fast-paced, fluid culture allows managers considerable latitude in how they get the job done. Merck’s culture places strong emphasis on data analysis; its managers need a consensus to meet their goals.

Gathering Inside Info

Once you’re on board, you’ll need to find out the realities of working "our way," especially preferred behaviors and attitudes, expectations for employee communication and interaction, decision-making and problem-solving approaches, typical treatment of employees and customers.

To discover your new workplace realities, develop relationships. Start networking on Day One. Co-workers and direct reports can explain how work gets done in your areas, and throughout the company. Ask your boss and peers in other departments about expectations, and about dealing with top management. Tell people you’re genuinely eager for their insights. Listen carefully after you’ve asked good questions, like these:

  • What should I know about how to act?
  • How is success defined here?
  • What’s the biggest mistake I could make?
  • Who’s a corporate hero?
  • What are the "sacred cows"?
  • What were some company history milestones?

Organizational culture is often determined by a company’s founders. They establish company focus, workplace beliefs and values, decision-making mode, and criteria for rewards. As the culture evolves, ways of working together remain embedded.

If the founder is no longer with the company, find out who subsequently held leadership positions. Who failed, and why? How has company culture shifted? Besides conversations, do some hands-on research.

An organization’s website describes it history, founders, and current CEO. This idealized "portrait" reveals how a company wants to be viewed by the public.

Articles about the company in business media probably afford a wide range of information, perhaps even its organizational culture. Little is hidden in today’s electronic universe.

Ads and slogans often reflect a company’s perceptions of its identity and customers, and recent annual reports reveal company concerns.

Learning the Job

Doing the job well requires attention to what needs to be done, and the most appropriate ways to accomplish it. Identify your job’s goals and priorities; available technologies, systems, and resources; and specific kinds of information you’ll need. Pinpoint senior management’s top concerns, and the decision-making hierarchy.

Thoughtful observations offer vital organizational culture clues:

  • Are more people working independently, or collaboratively?
  • Do people interact at all levels, or mostly with their manager and peers?
  • When discussing work, do employees use familiar terms, or company-specific acronyms and language? (If it’s mostly specific, learn these rapidly.)?
  • Is the preferred communication mode e-mail, telephone, or face-to-face?
  • Are memos and e-mails brief, or detailed? Is language formal or informal? Is anyone copied on a message??
  • Are meetings formal, with set agendas, or informal, with a free flow of topics?

The challenges of a job change include understanding your responsibilities, getting acquainted with your new boss, learning how to work well with colleagues–and mastering the corporate culture. That’s a real secret to success.

[Adapted from "Understanding and Adapting to a New Organizational Culture," by Anita Attridge, for ME Today.]

Understanding organizational culture is as important as knowing policies and procedures. Ignoring it can thwart your career progress.