When we join a new organization or when there is a major organizational change, we may want to figure out the lay of the land. In other words, we may want to know what is the culture, what are the goals, and what is the structure of the organization at various levels (company-wide, location-wide, team-wide). You may wonder, “but wait, isn’t it obvious? The culture is to work hard and collaborate with your team, the goal (like the book The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt says) is to make money, and the structure is hierarchical and found in an organizational chart”. Turns out they are somewhat overarching and at a high-level. What we need is something more nuanced. Let’s begin by first defining organizational culture and then see why it is important.
As defined in the HBR article,
Culture is the tacit social order of an organization: It shapes attitudes and behaviors in wide-ranging and durable ways. Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group.
As easy examples, working from home (or even remotely from another location) may be encouraged in some organizations and discouraged in others. Taking time off during the holiday season may be accepted in some places and rejected in others. But there are more subtle aspects: are you encouraged or discouraged to work on projects that are not in your core strength area; are you accepted or rejected when you make mistakes (i.e. quick and error-prone versus slow and accurate type of culture); does the leadership truly support and nurture you (or is that just lip service).
Knowing the organizational culture, and more generally the landscape, is important because you get to know what is valued. That is critical for things like getting recognized, promoted, and retained. More importantly, it improves your sense of belonging, and you feel like you are contributing to something big. With that brings motivation, excitement, and a stimulation to come to work and do your best. Similar to culture which may subtle, so would goals and structure. For example, it is crucial to find out how success is measured in the organization. Sometimes the mapping between success metrics and organization goals may be fuzzy, at best. So under those situations, it would not hurt to ask the purpose for certain success metrics.
It is also important to realize that an organization’s landscape differs across time and people. The time part is especially true when there are organizational changes like new leadership, moving groups or employees within an organization, or undergo mergers and acquisitions, huge societal changes like a pandemic, etc. So a pulse check may be needed from time to time to gauge the landscape. While time is not so surprising, the change across people may come as a surprise. Isn’t there supposed to be a common landscape especially company culture? It is only natural for managers that are generalists to feel it is important that all their direct reports focus on breadth whereas managers that are specialists may prefer depth.
A mistake that many of us make is to bring our prior cultural norms, experiences, and beliefs into a new position. When I started as an assistant professor, I wrote a couple of single-authored papers thinking what better way to show I am capable of doing independent research. Sure enough, at my second-year review, my dean sent a letter saying they really do not care about these single-authored papers, and we are in the business of educating students. They would like to see me write papers with my students. Since then I have been trying to be more careful to get a pulse of my workplace landscape before jumping in.
Of course, many things may be available on external and internal web pages about the organization, but nothing like speaking with people. Here are some thoughts on who, how, and what to ask:
Who to ask?
The mistake that some of us make is to ask one person, like a supervisor. As we said earlier, the landscape may look different for different people and you may want to get everyone’s perspective. This is akin to the parable of the blind men and an elephant. Each person may describe what they touch, feel, and see from their vantage point in the organization. Note that an organization’s landscape is a perception, and so getting inputs from many is key. Also getting inputs from many at different levels of the organization might be useful. This includes people that are far removed from you. Also, asking people with various years of experience is critical.
How to (get opportunities to) ask?
In most large companies, although it is possible to call for 1:1 meetings, people tend to focus on topics very close to their assigned tasks or projects. So much that the landscape comes “if time permits”. So it really helps to go to meetings and watch for what people value, what gets recognized, and are the norms. If you get invited to a meeting but they say it is optional to attend, do attend! These are the meetings where you can focus on the lay of the land (as opposed to being concerned about the technical content). Also, if you cannot go for a cup of coffee, meet at the water cooler, or walk over to the cafeteria, then make sure to attend the company’s social events.
What to ask?
Many times people may give very vague and “it depends” type of answers when you ask direct questions about a company’s culture or an organization’s landscape. After familiarising yourselves with the company’s products and/or services, you may want to start by asking about how your team fits in terms of the rest of the company. Go prepared for these meetings writing down specific things to ask, not just what you wish to achieve. Then ask specific questions about other groups, many people find it easier to criticize other groups, and that will give you an idea of what is valued by the person you are talking to.
Go ahead and map out the landscape like a surveyor!