What is Work-Place “Culture” and Why Do I Care?

You’ve certainly heard the term “culture” as it applies to a work-place environment. Culture in the work place means the same thing as it does when social scientists refer to the culture of a society or group of people. It is a term that refers to the mores, customs, and norms which characterize the interactions of members of a particular work group.

One work group may be quite casual in how its members interact. People may wander into one another’s offices without appointments or even prior notice. Colleagues may meet informally over coffee or in common areas to confer over issues or projects. It may be difficult for outsiders to even tell who’s in charge! In another work place, a much more formal atmosphere may prevail. Colleagues may make formal appointments with one another. There may be quite distinct differences between the furnishings of the offices of different levels of employees. Email may be the preferred means of contact. Perhaps everyone keeps an on-line calendar which each person consults before scheduling group meetings. You can see that how employees function in these two environments could be quite different. So why is this something you need to be aware of?

Have you ever been to a work place where everyone dressed quite formally? What if one person in that environment dressed completely differently from everyone else? This seems like a small thing on the surface, but it’s really not. If the whole workforce dresses in suits and ties and one man dresses in khakis and a sports shirt, he will be noticed, and people may even be uncomfortable with him, as strange as that sounds. Conversely, if the workforce norm is jeans and sports shirts, the odd man out is the person dressed in shirt and tie.

So why is this important? Who cares how you dress or whether or not you make formal appointments? You care, or you should. People like to belong, and they trust others who they see as belonging to their own groups. If you consistently put yourself in a “do not belong” category at work, either by your actions, dress, or behavior, you will find it more difficult to succeed at work. Others will, even if unconsciously, not feel comfortable with you. They may actually find it more difficult to work with you. And senior management may regard you as “not fitting in.” Strange, but true.

Most people are not even consciously aware of the content of the culture of their work places. They simply find themselves conforming. So is this always a good thing? Sometimes not. Some work place cultures, while comfortable for their members, foster limits on creative thinking and problem-solving. Have you ever heard, “We’ve always done it that way”? This kind of thinking is a reflection of workplace culture. Without intending to, those who support and maintain workplace culture may actually be limiting the capabilities of employees to innovate, adjust to changes, and embrace more efficient ways to do business.

If you are not quite sure culture is as powerful as I am implying it is, try a little experiment at work. Let’s say you have a morning staff meeting on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Your core staff group has been together for several years. Each person tends to sit in the same seat at the conference table, and has done so for years. Come to the next meeting a little early, and sit in someone else’s chair. I’m betting some of you are actually cringing at the very thought of doing this! That’s because culture norms are so powerful. People actually feel threatened by something as simple as being asked, even indirectly, to sit in a different chair. Imagine how they feel about being asked to do their work differently or to think about different ways to solve problems.

So how do you deal with cultural norms that aren’t helping, but hurting, your business? It’s extremely difficult to do this from an internal position because colleagues will be so resistant to it. A natural way to begin to change cultural norms is for a new leader to ever so gently question the status quo. Something as benign as changing where people customarily sit is actually a great place to start. It does make people a little uncomfortable, but it is something they recognize and are even amused by. And it does, in fact, actually set the stage for more significant changes in workplace culture. It puts the workplace on notice that some things will be changing.

An alternative to a new leader may be hiring an outside consultant to shake up your culture a little. And why do you want to do this, again? In order to avoid the mentality that you must continue to do things only one way. It’s not that change itself is good. It’s just that openness to the possibility of change or of exploring new or more efficient ways to get the work done may be to your advantage. So go sit in the “wrong” chair next week and see what happens!






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