How to Spot the "Culture Clues" at Work

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The cultural differences described below are often observed in organizations. Since these are stereotyped descriptions, many organizations will exhibit characteristics of more than one type.

A.  The Family Culture

  • Co-workers are friends who eat lunch together and may socialize after work.
  • People take time to chit-chat before getting down to business.
  • Offices and cubicles have personal items and family pictures.
  • Managers are concerned about family issues and personal problems.
  • Disagreements may be seen as personal conflicts.
  • People bring in food and like to have celebrations.
  • Colleagues know one another’s families – or at least know about them.

How to get in trouble:
Show no interest in your colleagues’ personal life. Fail to attend social occasions. Talk about nothing but work. Disagree in a confrontational manner. Always eat lunch by yourself.

B.  The Boot Camp Culture

  • Management is very directive and authoritative.
  • Many decisions are made at higher levels of the hierarchy.
  • There are a lot of policies, procedures, manuals, and handbooks.
  • Organizational relationships are clearly defined and outlined on charts.
  • Many levels of approval are required for decisions and expenditures.
  • Employees are referred to as “subordinates” and are expected to be deferential to management.
  • People who do not follow policies are punished.

How to get in trouble:
Ignore policies and procedures. Make decisions without required approvals. Go over your boss’s head. Act too casual and informal with management. Publicly disagree with managers about their decisions.

C.  The Team Culture

  • A lot of work is done in projects or by committees.
  • People are expected to cooperate and collaborate.
  • Meetings are frequent and often lengthy.
  • People are expected to solicit input from others before making a decision.
  • Managers encourage group consensus on decisions.
  • Problems are often addressed by putting together a team to work on them.
  • Staff retreats and team building activities are seen as valuable.
  • People who like to work independently may be viewed as deviants.

How to get in trouble:
Fail to share information with colleagues. Make decisions without getting input from others. Complete major projects on your own. Act uncooperatively. Complain about team activities.

D.  The Self-Starter Culture

  • Individual achievement is highly valued.
  • New employees get very little orientation and are expected to figure things out on their own.
  • Managers do not provide detailed directions about goals and projects.
  • Creativity and innovation are encouraged.
  • People seen as having high potential are given special attention.
  • Employees are expected to speak up, be assertive, and ask for what they need.
  • Those who can’t keep up are usually let go.
  • People who are unassertive may be viewed as deviants.

How to get in trouble:
Ask your manager for a lot of specific instructions. React negatively to change and new ideas. Wait for someone else to figure out what you need or want. Fail to share your thoughts in meetings.

When you join a new organization, you may continue to operate on the cultural expectations of your previous workplace. This is one reason why formerly successful people can suddenly find themselves failing in a new job.

If you seem to be in the middle of a cultural shift, consider these suggestions:

  1. When something seems odd, try to figure out what it says about the culture.
  2. Observe what is done by people who are considered successful.
  3. Observe the actions or attitudes that seem to get people in trouble.
  4. Ask your boss or colleagues to help you understand “the way we do things here”.
  5. Determine how you may need to change your usual work style.
  6. Don’t automatically assume that “different” means “wrong”.
  7. Look for the positive aspects of the new culture.