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By Anna Garleff - Founder of Garleff Coaching and Consulting Group (GCCG) | The Seeking Veritas Business and Leadership Column is an ongoing collaborative project between SG Productions & GCCG
For such a broad topic as "Cultural Awareness", it certainly helps to ascertain where you are positioned in the grand scheme of things. Are you trying to "fit in"? Or are you the one merely trying to "accommodate difference" - within reason, of course. In other words, are you a newcomer, or are you part of the hegemonic culture?
Although both newcomer and oldcomer "accommodate difference", clearly the newcomer is the one having to actually change a fundamental part of their identity. The oldcomer may need only accommodate someone's idiosyncracies, while simulataneously harbouring the belief that - with enough practice - the newcomer will eventually "come around" and any uncomfortable differences will be "ironed out".
What really separates them is power.
It's not obvious power, either. As a newcomer, you hit countless brick walls of "dos" and "don'ts" and "rights and wrongs" that are largely unspoken, undiscussed, and may come with severe consequences when transgressed. The punishments for unknowing can range from silence to outright ostracism - because, after all, what is "normal and natural" is simply just everyday "commonsense".
Until it's not.
Consider the banal example of a guest's shoes in the house - and these are just examples from places I've known:
In Canada, you don't wear your shoes in the house, because very likely they're covered in snow.
In the UK, you'd never expect your guest to take their shoes off and risk them getting cold feet.
In Germany, the shoes are an important part of fashion and you'd look ridiculous without them.
In Ghana, the fine red dust covering everything is a constant annoyance to be avoided inside at all costs.
In Japan, good manners include wearing the terrycloth slippers the host provides for you.
In Mauritius, wearing your shoes inside offends not only your host, but the Goddess as well! - As I said, the penalties for transgression can be severe!
What about the workplace - where things are more formal, and you are expected to perform a "role" and "fit in" to the culture? (Nay - you may actually have been hired specifically for "cultural fit".) In business, "culture" is what distinguishes one company from another, in the same way that "personality" is a cluster of unique individual attributes. At the intersection of strategy, logistics, diplomacy, and tactics is organizational culture; and it is the result of how the people who work there behave day in and day out, and the "rules" of interaction that naturally emerge.
Notice I said: "naturally". So any attempt to "create" or "change" culture is like teaching a herd of elephants to dance (that's how Louis Gerstner of IBM once described it). Culture, then, is not something you can dictate from a strategic plan. But done right, it can pave the veritable road to success for your organization - and it certainly does need to be managed.
You may well ask yourself whether an individual's personality needs to be "managed". I'll wait. While personality is innate, behaviour is always a choice. And that's why as long as there are businesses, there will be leadership courses.
I don't have the most recent statistics, but pick a percentage that reflects "a lot" and you have the number of employees who are not engaged at work. In the mid 2010s, that number was 87% (Gallup). And that was pre-COVID - imagine what that percentage is now. What constitutes "meaning" and "purpose" - and what right you have to co-create that - have changed dramatically. It has forced leadership to have an extreme rethink about what they do and how they do it.
So how do you become aware of something that's insidious, invisible, and created in the spaces between people with unequal access to power and privilege?
Well, there are several clues before you even start at your new place of employ. It's kind of like choosing a restaurant - you don't really know what you're getting. You've `got to trust the menu and the maître'd before you even order so much as a drink, much less use the bathroom. Yes, we're going there: potty analogies. The dirty underbelly of culture. The stuff that keeps you awake at night, mumbling: "If I'd only known ...".
Here's a checklist to help you avoid job-seeker regret:
Size of business (will you be a small fish in a big pond?)
Type of industry (bespeckled, black-wearing creatives, anyone?)
Vision, mission, goals (who are they claiming to be?)
Leadership profile (are these people you can look up to?)
Scandals and news (what was the most recent thing that made them newsworthy? Was it positive or negative? How did they handle it? What did the public think? What were the repercussions? How long ago was that? What did they change as a result?)
Try calling reception, and see what kind of reception you get (put on forever hold? Or simply just call dropped? Did someone try to help you solve your problem or couldn't care less?)
Compare the job description to the LinkedIn profile of someone with a similar role in the company (do you want to sound like that?)
Glassdoor (good reviews or crap?)
Coffee chats (get an insider's perspective, but bear in mind someone will only agree to this if they've got predominately good things to say. That's why you also need to coffee up someone who's moved on from the company)
Community work (tokenism? Or something more?)
Benefit package (meaningful? decent? any con-ed? WFH? Bear in mind that if you're looking for start-up energy you may have to forego the benefit package. And if you're a rock star who would suit that kind of culture and role, you probably don't care)
Check out the leader's inofficial communications output (golf and wine? or an actual passion for their business?)
DEI representation and policies (how tolerant / accommodating / welcoming [three different words] are they? do you see yourself reflected there?)
So what's the upshot of that long checklist? (By no means comprehensive, by the way.) It means that understanding culture is really about understanding yourself first - what you want and what environment will help you thrive and grow (not just grabbing the first job on the LinkedIn conveyor belt). Are you a first-timer open to the vicissitudes of learning from the good, bad, and ugly? Or are you a seasoned professional with a proven track record of how other organizations in this industry, with a similar mandate and size, operate - in a variety of countries? It doesn't matter that much - but it's still a good place to start.
Every organization is different - and every person, obviously, as well. One horrible middle manager can ruin it all; one brilliant co-worker can brighten your path; one exemplary leader can provide a vision and values so strong that the company grows in orders of magnitude - successfully.
I guess it boils down to your own problem-solving skills, personal resilience, curiosity, ability to laugh off mistakes (your own and others') - and learn from them. Watch and learn, as the saying goes - and forge your own path once you've mastered "How it's done around here".
So take yer boots off, come on in, and set a spell. Welcome to Canada.
About the Author: Anna Garleff is an Organizational Psychologist; she provides C-Suite Executive Coaching around the world focusing on scaling up and leading diverse teams through Garleff Coaching & Consulting Group. She has been a ghostwriter for KPMG, Deloitte and PwC; and a former Director of the Open University (UK) operations in Germany.
You can contact Anna at: https://www.linkedin.com/company/garleff-coaching-consulting-group/