The Cultural Guide To Fitting In

A dominant theme of my writing—and my consulting—is “it depends.” It is a fundamental truism that we need to make sense of our environment, and our context, and what we are trying to accomplish. Triangulating these points begins to move us towards identifying a direction that might be appropriate.

Making sense of culture is critical. It’s also very hard to do in real life, which is frustrating. Many people—you know who you are—want clear answers. They want to know the right way of doing things, and what the right answer is in a given situation. The challenge is that there aren’t always simple rules or processes to follow.

There is no easy guide to navigating politics. That’s not to say, though, that there isn’t guidance. There are just no specific rules that work in all circumstances.

As a consultant, I maneuver through different organizational cultures constantly. The challenge with being a consultant—instead of working full-time in one organization—is that you don’t have the time to gradually and progressively learn “how do things work here?” You’ve got to be able to take a reasonably accurate cultural read from pretty much the first interaction.

That perception will change over time. You will build nuance and detail. You’ll layer on additional appreciations of what is politically accepted, what is politically charged and what is deemed undiscussable. Emphasis on deemed; one of the privileges of being a consultant is that sometimes it’s your job to explicitly call out the undiscussables. More on that in a future article, but let’s just accept it as given that they exist right now.

The point of doing all of this is that you need to work within the organization. You need to know the rules; not just the written ones, but also the unwritten ones. Top tip: the unwritten rule are always more relevant, more influential and more reflective of how things truly work than the ones that are written down. What’s committed to writing is often downright wrong, and is there more to provide rational cover than to reflect what is expected in terms of actual performance and process.

Culturally fitting in is a product of three interrelated and overlapping circles of activity:

  • Figuring out and understanding the culture
  • Assessing how to respond
  • Taking action in a way that is culturally appropriate and likely to be successful

An important point here, as both reminder and caution: this is not a process. There is no “if this, do that” that I can provide. And if I said otherwise, I would be lying. The closest I can come is “given these circumstances, and this probabilistic read of the territory, I might tend towards this direction.” But that’s as close to directive as we’re going to get. If your world is black and white, and your tolerance for nuanced shades of grey is low, you may want to stop reading now for the sake of your blood pressure and your sanity.

Understanding the culture is the first challenge, and I don’t want to minimize the effort that’s involved. Culture has a lot of dimensions. It’s one of those big, fuzzy concepts that everyone gets in theory but struggles to define in practice. In large part, because culture is a comprehensive, all-encompassing sense of how things work here.

Understanding the culture is also difficult because there is no one single read of culture. Each department, division, team, project and small huddle of cubicles exhibits their own cultural aspects. Those aspects are strongly influenced and shaped by the larger whole, but each group develops unique attributes and attitudes all their own within that larger understanding.

Culture also changes based on circumstances. Behaviours can be very different in times of stress than when things are going well. Larger circumstances influence how they show up. When things are going well, cultural perceptions may reflect far more relaxed, cooperative and supportive behaviours than when the organization is under duress. We often get a much clearer perception of how culture plays out, how things work and what is really valued in times of conflict.

There are a number of different models and frameworks that exist to describe culture. I work with several, and I’ve got a working knowledge of others. The trick here is not to use one, specifically. Every model reinforces and highlights the dimensions it thinks most important; the consequence is that other perspectives get deemphasized and fade to the background. Having a grasp of different ways that culture can be assessed and what they mean allows you to choose the perspective most relevant in the future.

As an illustration, one of the more enduring definitions of culture is the Competing Values Framework described by Cameron & Quinn. On the face of it, it’s a simple model (and yet another two-by-two matrix). But there’s a lot working beneath the surface; if you haven’t read the book and you are interested in culture, it’s a good read and a great primer.

The essence of the Competing Values Framework is that organizations have an orientation (either internal or external) and they have an overall preference for structure (that is either flexible or control oriented). At the intersection of those dimensions, different values emerge.

Internal and flexible orientations are very clan based, and while they are collegial on the surface they also emphasize and are highly sensitive to issues of loyalty. Internal and control-oriented organizations, by contrast, value hierarchy, procedure and formal rules. There is a formal way to do things, and informality, individuation and discretion is highly discouraged.

Externally focussed and control-oriented organizations, by contrast, are less driven by internal process than they are by outward performance. What is most valued is market domination, competitive success and overall status. External and flexible organizations value customer responsiveness and delivery of positive experiences and satisfaction. Process is loose or utterly lacking, solutions are figured out on the fly, precedent is irrelevant and continual reinvention is the norm.

These descriptions are high level summaries; there can be a great deal of nuance that emerges as different combinations of preferences play out. Nonetheless, even in those simple descriptions useful stereotypes emerge. They allow us to ask, “is this organization more like this, or like this?” They point to likely values that may not be overtly stated, or even recognized, but nonetheless are real and operating in how the organization functions. With enough familiarity with how the models work—and a number of different models to draw on—you can get to a comprehensive and detailed assessment of the forces at play in any organization.

Cultural assessment is one thing. Formulating a response is an entirely different matter. When we attempt to integrate into the culture, we’re mostly trying to figure out ways of engagement and interaction that align with what is valued and appreciated. We want to fit in. We want our message to be heard. We want the decisions that we need to be made or supported. And we need to figure out what to say, how to say it, to whom (and when) in order to make that all happen.

Ironically, how to say things is often the easiest. Culturally speaking, there will once again be ways that define how things get done. There will often be standard forms for status reports. There are templates for PowerPoint (and typical structures that are accepted in how to approach a particular presentation). There may be accepted formats for memos, briefing notes and decision requests. There may even be defined escalation paths or reporting structures for specific decision types.

Understanding all of this is the first part (and again, it’s often information I need to explicitly probe for when I’m consulting, that we learn over time when we are employees). One of the most valuable insights that I’ve learned is that we have a choice in how we apply this knowledge. We get to choose the communication path that has the greatest likelihood of success. Working within the constraints that exist, we can still endeavour to structure our message to have the greatest possible impact.

What allows us to do this is that we each play multiple roles in any given organization. Each role places different expectations on us, but it also gives us different access points to people, actions and decisions. What may be unacceptable to do based upon the title on your business card, for example, may be entirely relevant and appropriate as floor safety officer. Or manager of this particular project. Or informal mentor on all things technology to this manager. The roles you play give you access to different decision makers in different ways. Some of those roles are formal, and some of them are informal. They are all useful and usable.

What this practically means when shaping our message and deciding to respond has a few different perspectives to work with. We need to assess the roles available, and chose the one that is most relevant or useful in terms of the outcome we need. Within that role, we need to assess who we have access to, how those interactions work and who can best help us. While we can also consider what the norms are for those interactions, another perspective is how we choose to interpret those norms. The rules of culture aren’t rigid; they generally have at least some flex in them, and it’s a question of how much latitude exists normally, and the degree that we can push that in a particular situation.

An example might help here. Working with a client, we were getting ready for a major launch presentation one day, and were having problems with the AV equipment. The formal approach was to submit a ticket to the help desk (which would be triaged, prioritized, assigned for investigation with a follow up promised within two business days). While I get why these processes exist, and they provide some level of manageability to what otherwise be reactive chaos, that process didn’t work when a major presentation is starting in 30 minutes.

There is no point getting frustrated with the person on the end of the phone. They have a script to follow, a role to play, and fairly little discretion in how to do their job. Assessing my other roles, I was facilitating a group of staff in working through a particular problem. We had a meeting coming up shortly, and one of the group members (who happens to be have some responsibility for AV work) owed me some information. A quick phone call got me the information I needed, and also afforded the ability to say “by the way, any chance someone could look at the projector in this room?” Fifteen minutes later, a bulb was changed and we were good to go.

That may be a simple and straightforward example on its face, but it’s one that I’ve used many times and in a variety of contexts. It’s using relationships and roles to follow up with an executive assistant to get a hold of a difficult-to-reach senior manager, or to check in with finance on the status of a purchase order, or coordinating with a manager to make schedule adjustments that allow me to book a meeting room. In all instances, it’s about working within the roles I have and the relationships that result in order to figure out a way of getting results that fit within how the organization functions. The more roles, the more relationships and the more granular understanding I have of how things work, the more options there are to get things done.

We all need to develop strategies to fit into the culture we operate in. Some of us need to do it faster and more adaptively than others, but reading culture and making choices that work within it is essential to all organizational functioning. What’s most important is knowing that there is no one way, that we have options, and we have flexibility in how we interpret those options.

In this, as in many things, knowledge is power. The more we know, the more diverse our range of options. The more insight we have about what to look for, the more we can know about what actions are possible. And the more we appreciate and interpret our roles, the more we can leverage them to actually take culturally relevant action. Because at the end of the day, actions count.

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