Years ago, after a period of intense reflection, I realized something about myself.  When I looked back at the less successful ventures in my life, nearly all of them could be attributed to a failure to read the culture of a particular organization or group of people.

My worst job experience ever was at a company that had a very strong culture around dotting i’s and crossing t’s.  I had come from an entrepreneurial company where everything was, in the words of a colleague, “loosey goosey.”  Creativity and risk-taking were rewarded, and lack of attention to detail was often forgiven or perhaps not even noticed.  I failed to read the tremendous shift in my new organization and failed in the job as a result.

But the examples I can come up with are not limited to organizational ones.  I remember a  boyfriend whose family I never really fit in with.  At the time I couldn’t put my finger on why it wasn’t working, but in retrospect, there was a crucial event at a birthday party for my boyfriend’s sister.  I got bored with the cocktail party chatter so I  jumped in a lake with my party clothes on to make the kids laugh.  The adults at the party were horrified.  In my family, a group of veteran practical jokers, jumping in the lake in a dress would be considered mildly amusing but certainly not radical.  In my boyfriend’s family it meant there was something “not quite right” about me.

Culture, which I define as “the way we do things around here,” is so powerful that it shapes our judgment of a person’s character, whether we recognize it or not.  The fundamental attribution error comes into play in such situations; instead of recognizing that someone is acting in a way that makes sense to them, given how they see their situation, we attribute behaviors that don’t make sense in our culture to bad motives.  I didn’t jump in the lake because that was considered a fun thing to do where I came from; I did it because I wanted to upset everyone, or perhaps I was drunk.  I didn’t miss the details at my old company because I saw a big picture that I considered more important to focus on; I did it because I was a sloppy person who didn’t care about messing things up.

When you follow a simple rule, to always ask yourself “why would a reasonable person do that?”, I think you open doors to recognizing the impact of culture on a person’s behavior.  And then you give them the benefit of the doubt instead of further alienating them from the group through the expression of judgment.

And the lesson for me, a perpetual cultural misfit, is to always think about how my behavior will be read in light of the culture I’m in.  That’s a journey with no end.

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