Does Your Culture Feel like Flip-Flops or Dress Shoes?

Have you ever taken a job that sounded amazing and then slowly, things just seemed a little off? You did the assigned work, but it was so much harder than normal? You needed longer conversations with your manager or your peers just to get anything done? Everything took more energy than expected? It happened to me once. Ironically, it was only after I left and started elsewhere that I realized the problem wasn’t me or the role or that company or my manager (I loved my manager!) or even the industry. Instead, it was an absolute mismatch between that corporate culture and my work preferences. I couldn’t explain it exactly at the time, but we just weren’t a good fit.

Now I know why. In “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture” from the Harvard Business Review, the authors examined over 100 behavioral and social models and found that there are really two distinct axes that define culture. The first involves people interactions and coordination and the axis ranges from Highly Independent to Highly Interdependent. Cultures that lean toward the former place greater value on autonomy, individual action, and competition. Those that lean toward the latter emphasize integration, managing relationships, and coordinating group effort. The second axis is response to change, ranging from Stability to Flexibility. According to the authors, those that favor stability tend to follow rules, use control structures such as seniority-based staffing, reinforce hierarchy, and strive for efficiency. Those that favor flexibility tend to prioritize innovation, openness, diversity, and a longer-term orientation.

From that two by two matrix, eight distinct cultures emerge: Purpose, Caring, Order, Safety, Authority, Results, Enjoyment and Learning. Each style has advantages and disadvantages and there is no one culture that is more successful than another. The authors use some well-known companies as examples. Zappos is an enjoyment culture. Whole Foods is a purpose culture. The SEC is an order culture. There are often secondary aspects to the culture as well. So it could be a Caring and Learning culture.

When I think about my work preferences, I lean slightly more independent in terms of work style and value flexibility immensely. However, I was in a culture that was about stability and interdependence, likely a safety culture. When I went back into a highly flexible culture, it felt like putting on a pair of flip-flops versus walking around all-day in four-inch heels.

So how do you know what kind of culture you are in? Fortunately, there is an assessment for that in the “What’s Your Organizational Profile” portion of the HBR article (keep scrolling). What I’ve learned by having our own WeSpire team members take this assessment is that perception of culture differs a bit from employee to employee. Nearly everyone taking the assessment got “caring” but the other attribute was either “purpose” or “learning.”

The bigger challenge is what to do if you realize that you are not in the best culture for you. I think it depends on the size of the company, especially if you have other reasons for not wanting to make a change. The larger the company, the more likely there are to be subcultures or teams that could be a better fit. Go talk to HR or an internal mentor and just be candid about your work style preferences and ask if there are teams that are a better match.

Not matching with the culture is harder in small companies, unless people can openly acknowledge, respect and flex to embrace diverse work preferences. As a leader, I know that having diverse work styles is just as important as having diverse backgrounds. Certain roles also need certain styles, for example you may want a safety and order orientation in your compliance function, but not in your innovation group. It’s very possible for someone to thrive in a culture that isn’t aligned with their natural orientation, but everyone needs to try harder and be more aware.

Based on my own experience, however, I wouldn’t spend too long in uncomfortable shoes. There is a company where you can be you and everyone thinks it’s exactly what is needed. They will be lucky to have you, and you will be lucky to have them. 

Quote of the Week: “Culture is like the wind. It is invisible; yet its effect can be seen and felt.”

Bryan Walker, Partner and Managing Director of Ideo

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