I was in a teambuilding session recently, asking the participants a question about their group norms, and one of the newer members of the team said, “I’m still trying to figure out the flavor of our culture.”

That’s a common feeling when you’re new to an organization.  Here’s the more important question in my mind: Is your culture accessible to new employees, or is it a secret handshake that you only get if you play golf with the boss or get invited to happy hour by the “in” crowd?  The culture of an organization describes “the way we do things around here,” the behaviors that will allow you to fit in and be accepted.  Can a newcomer figure out what those behaviors are?  Do we talk about them, pass them on, or have them written down anywhere?  Or do they operate as rules for the elite, which you can only find out once you’ve been initiated?

This is important not only for practical reasons, but also for diversity reasons.  Cultures which operate as secret handshakes often unintentionally screen out newcomers who are different.  The management group that hangs out on the golf course or at the local watering hole is an all-male group, for example, and they’re pretty comfortable keeping it that way.  The new woman on the executive team doesn’t get an invitation and doesn’t feel confident enough to invite herself.  It seems clear to her that this is not a group where she’s welcome, so she goes home on Friday evenings and misses the many important decisions that end up being made over a Scotch.  Over time, she is unable to pick up the many subtle clues as to what behaviors lead to promotion in this organization, nor does she find out the latest gossip in terms of who’s moving where, what opportunities are opening up, and who’s been called onto the carpet for doing what.  She’s not part of the “in” crowd, so it’s harder for her to fit in and figure out what it takes to be successful in the organization.  So she stagnates in her position, never really feeling comfortable with her teammates (nor they with her), and eventually she leaves because she feels there is a “glass ceiling” in the organization, although what that glass ceiling is composed of she really can’t put a finger on.

How do we avoid this?  In two ways:

1.  Make sure your culture is something tangible.  Talk about it often, and write down the behavioral norms that make up that culture.  Creating group norms is a valuable teambuilding exercise in and of itself, and the final product will be something you can give to new arrivals to help them fit in.

2.  Go out of your way to include your colleagues in unofficial activities, especially those who are different from you and those who are new.  If you always go to lunch with the same people, invite someone different to lunch tomorrow.  Not only will you help them to feel more included on the team, but you might learn something from them or gain a new perspective yourself.

What other ways can we make our team and organizational cultures inclusive rather than exclusive?

1 Comment

  1. This so true and fits with many of the motivations behind me recently setting up CARDIO a corporate culture consultancy. Good to hear your practical suggestions..