When you start a new job or move to a new city, one of your goals should be to fit into the environment. That doesn’t mean changing who you are, rather being conscious about the symbols and signals you send about making a new place your home.
In the workplace, some of the strategies you should employ from the beginning are to learn (and utilize) the jargon and acronyms. Nothing will highlight your newness faster than pronouncing something wrong, calling a department by the wrong name (eg: business office vs. finance department), or by using the full name instead of the commonly used shorthand. It’s also important to be intentional about appearance, lunch and break norms and communication culture (eg: do people use email, drop by in person or schedule an appointment) and work ethics.
If you moved to a new location for your job, it’s important to assimilate into the out-of-office environment as well. Even though I was very active and consciously immersed myself in the new city, my efforts were offset by other signals I unconsciously sent that trumpeted that I wasn’t from here. I kept my cell phone number so had a different area code than most. I drive a car brand that doesn’t have a dealership here. I live in a new subdivision so my address isn’t familiar to long-time residents. As a result, my involvement made it feel like home to me, but to others, I am still often seen as an outsider.
Fitting in is a two-way process, whether that be at your job, as a tourist or in a new city. You may overtly choose to forge your own path and do things in ways that are different from the others or you may try to replicate behaviors. You may opt to pass on acclimating yourself to the town and instead learn things as you go or you may deeply immerse yourself in its culture. The key is to make your choice with intentionality, knowing that you can always do more or less to both feel like home and to be seen as being at home.
The book I chose for class, The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, had me nodding my head the entire way through it. “YES!” I wanted to shout as he recounted story after story about how little actions add up to create significant enhancements to an organization’s culture and individual behavior.
Coyle outlines three skills that his research shows are necessary for an effective culture:
- Build Safety
- Share Vulnerability
- Establish Purpose
To create safety means that it must be safe for team members to speak up and to embrace candid feedback. He advocates going beyond “not shooting the messenger” who delivers negative news but to actually embrace that person and thank them for sharing the news that the leader needs to hear.
To create vulnerability, the leader must demonstrate this first by admitting challenges and continuously encouraging input from others. “I screwed up” and “I need your help” are two key phrases that are infrequently in the leader’s vocabulary but should be. Coyle writes that vulnerability creates trust and must come first, not the other way around as is commonly believed.
In order to establish purpose, leaders must take care of each other and cultivate the culture as the first order of business. By sharing frequent stories, inside phrases, reminders of the reason for existing and creating high-purpose environments leaders reinforce the connection to something bigger than the moment and create a safe and meaningful culture that allows groups to learn quickly and to become more successful.
It is not easy to admit vulnerability, to hear negative feedback or to prioritize taking care of colleagues as the primary mission but the initial discomfort is far outweighed by the benefits a safe culture provides. Coyle’s book provides a set of action steps to help develop the three skills, and all are small steps that are repeated with consistency over time even when they are uncomfortable at first. Start today by purposefully letting your guard down and saying: “I don’t know” or “I need your help” and help your whole team make it a habit to express those sentiments as well.
With the tight labor market, changing generations and the high cost of employee turnover you can’t afford not to pay attention to culture as your organization’s most valuable asset.
The Culture Code: Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle, 2018
The coach of a new football team was asked to donate an item for a fundraising auction. He contributed the team’s jersey with the Number 1 on it. “No one on my team wears #1,” Coach Regalado is reported to have said.
In that small action, the coach shared more about his values and team philosophy than could be captured in an entire playbook.
Are your behaviors consistent with the culture you are trying to create? Take a lesson from this coach and deploy small actions to create a big impact.
I have seen a lot of unusual team-building activities in my day, but this was a new one to me: axe-throwing seems to be an actual thing! In little areas reminiscent of batting cages, participants throw an honest-to-goodness real axe at the wall in hopes of hitting near a target (and not the person throwing next to them!).
When I saw the first facility, I thought it was a fluke, but there were at least two locations in downtown St. Louis that offer the experience. It is billed as a “corporate team-builder” although I can see many subliminal emotions that could be expressed by people’s inner Paul Bunyan.
When you are choosing a team builder for your organization, take into account the temperament and characteristics of those in your group. Some may love the physical challenge of axe throwing, while others may be more suited to the mental stimulation of an escape room or scavenger hunt. It’s one thing to take your team outside its comfort level and another push the boundaries so far that it does more harm than good. Assess whether you would want to ax this activity for your organization or determine that it could be ax-actly what your team needs!
While I shared many lessons at the supervisor workshop, I learned some things, too. One of my favorites was the concept by Andy Stanley that helps to frame a culture of trust, whether that be in a marriage or in an organization.
“Occasionally there are gaps between what we expect people to do and what they actually do,” teaches Stanley. How leaders respond to that gap serves to create the culture of your organization. Stanley outlines two choices: people can “assume the worst” or “believe the best”. He maintains that if a leader chooses to believe the best, that a culture of trust will develop.
Note the word “chooses.” Stanley acknowledges that leaders may not always feel that benevolent, but he maintains that they can still choose to act in a way that supersedes their emotion, believing that there is something unknown that caused the person to act as they did and that once it is discovered, it will lead to understanding.
His premise does not demand blind acceptance when performance creates a gap. When the leader initially believes the best but evidence is to the contrary, the leader must choose to confront the situation rather than continue with concealed suspicions.
If your organization or any relationship is looking to create or strengthen a culture of trust (and hopefully you are!), Stanley’s message provides strategies and rationale to help you on this journey. The residual benefits to the individuals and the overall health of the organization warrant the effort.
Watch the full 45-minute message here.
A colleague shared an analogy about change that seems appropriate for this first day of August. Think about when you were a kid and you spent some time in a neighborhood pool. One of the first things you would do would be to walk around the edges – all in the same direction – trying to create a whirlpool effect. It was hard work at first, but then you gained momentum, and eventually, the current would just allow you to float along in it.
New people automatically joined in the flow as they would have had a hard time stopping it. Sometimes you slipped up when trying to create the momentum, but you just got back in the circle and tried again. The same was true when someone bumped into you as they tried to go at a different speed. You made amends and pressed on.
Creating a whirlpool in the swimming pool is a lot like creating change in an organization. In the book Good to Great, author Jim Collins describes it as a flywheel – that the first turn is quite difficult, but with enough turns in the same direction, it creates powerful momentum that it is difficult to stop. The problem comes in when people give up too easily and try to go on their own path because making one collective motion is challenging.
If you are trying to create a culture change or alter your organization’s trajectory, think about being a kid in the pool. One loop around the pool does nothing, but by the end, you’ve got some serious force at play in your favor.
There is a subtle feature to Yankee Stadium that I would have never noticed had I not gone on the official tour: the ballpark was intentionally constructed to leave a gap that allows the subway cars to be visible.
Spectators don’t consciously think about the presence of the quintessentially New York method of transportation, but the franchise felt it was important for the subway to be incorporated into the plans.
It serves as a good metaphor for culture. Those creating it do so intentionally, but those living it may not explicitly notice its presence. Nevertheless, its existence makes an impression and contributes to the overall environment and character of the place.
Think of what is the equivalent of your “subway gap”. Is there an element of your culture that should be intentionally incorporated into your space? Does what makes you “you” physically show up in your organization? The details become the differentiator.