“When in Rome”- Recognizing and Adapting to Organizational Culture

May 8, 2019 in
By Jessica Milloy

This month we’re exploring the truism ‘when in Rome…’ which is generally taken to mean that you should adapt to the environment in which you find yourself, whether traveling or just in unfamiliar territory. It also implies that you should suspend typical opinions or concerns (to a point- no one would argue that it’s a sound rationale to do something dangerous or illegal) and jump into the experience. Case in point- when I was last in Rome, I followed the examples of others around me and ate a lot of artichokes, pasta, drank great wines, saw beautiful art, and enjoyed sitting at large piazzas with an evening spritz. I really liked immersing myself in Roman culture and clearly embraced this truism to the fullest extent.

Travel experiences aside, this truism speaks more broadly to adapting to a different culture, whether that’s of a foreign country or even just a different group or organization. Every group or organization has a unique culture, shaped by the individuals, the experiences, and the environment. Culture consists of a variety of defined elements (e.g., values, mission, mottos, rules) and also a million invisible and undefined behaviors that emerge over time and a variety of interactions (e.g., spontaneous conversations vs. structured meetings, relaxed business dress vs. formal attire, use of first names and nicknames vs. formal titles). All of these elements, whether formal or informal, define the culture of an organization and provide guidelines for the behaviors for those that identify as part of that organization. A culture can have subcultures (i.e., a marketing department may have different cultural norms than the accounting department, even in the same company) and it isn’t perfectly homogeneous. Culture is always continually evolving- adapting to new people or changes in the environment. When considered from that angle, culture is a living, breathing, evolving aspect of an organization that differentiates it from other, otherwise similar organizations. Which doesn’t mean that culture is accidental or unintentional- it can be those things if left unintended, but cultures can be intentionally shaped in different directions or maintained by thought, care, and monitoring of behavior. 

In our work with various clients, federal, non-profit, commercial, or state and local, culture is both the subject of our engagements and also a factor to be considered if we are to be successful in working with the organization. In the first scenario, we are frequently brought in to help design, develop, and conduct employee surveys focused on climate (a concept closely related to and sometimes interchangeably used with culture), engagement, or satisfaction (aspects of culture). In these efforts, we are working with organizations that are intentionally seeking to understand and potentially influence their cultures for the better. Even if our work with a new client doesn’t at all relate to helping them understand and manage their culture, if we ignore the culture of the organization, we do so at our own peril. As when in Rome, it’s a good idea to observe how individuals within the organization communicate with each other, dress, and share information. We might not entirely model those behaviors ourselves, but we are going to take those examples into mind as we shape our communication and support. In this way, many of our consultants intuitively begin to observe, recognize, and adapt to cultural norms from the very first interactions with a new client, almost without being aware of the need to do so. 

You may not relate to the experiences of a consultant, but I’d bet that you’ve experienced culture (or maybe more accurately, culture-shock) for yourself the last time you started a new job. The culture of an organization is never more exposed than when you’re a new person, sitting on the fringes and trying to make sense of the people around you. For that reason, having a strong onboarding program becomes much more vital than simply getting the paperwork, benefits, and logistics of a new hire’s life sorted- it can be their lifeline to understanding and assimilating into the culture of an organization.

When we begin working with a client to develop or refresh their onboarding program, we’re looking at a variety of elements that will contribute to the successful integration of a new hire. There are the obvious logistical aspects of ensuring that they’ve completed the necessary paperwork, enrollment, IT, and orientation activities, but there are also the ‘softer’ elements that have to be considered and integrated. These ‘softer’ elements are often about making cultural aspects obvious to new hires and explaining their importance in a way that engages, not alienates the new hire. For example, sessions with company leadership that focus on the tangible elements of culture like mission and values help orient the new hire to their contribution to the company’s success, enable leaders to bring their values to life with examples and stories, and create opportunities for new hires to see cultural behaviors role-modeled in these first interactions. At the same time, the intangible elements must also be addressed- What do you wear in the office or when meeting with clients? How do you communicate with your co-workers- through meetings, email, or instant message? What do you do and who do you ask when you have a question or need help? What do people do for lunch? All of those are incredibly important and valid questions that get to the heart of an organization’s culture- learning those answers and understanding those behaviors go a long way towards making a new hire feel more comfortable, more successfully onboarded, and draw them inward from the fringes.

At FMP, we inherently love delving into, understanding, and talking about company culture. I could keep writing about how we intentionally shape and grow our culture or share cool stories about the amazing things our clients have done to share their culture with new hires. But, this is the first blog of the month and we have many more coming that will go deeper into these topics. Besides, it’s lunch time, so that means I need to get out of my office, head into our big kitchen, and spend a few minutes catching up with everyone on last night’s tragic company softball game loss! When in Rome…