The Corporate Culture Thing

By Chidi Eke

Why do we often overlook organisational culture and fitting in – until it’s too late?

Early in my career, I remember getting an email from senior management enquiring about a project our team was working on – one for which I was specifically responsible. I replied as any eager newbie would: with a fairly detailed progress report and assurances of further updates. Convinced that a sharpish, thorough response reflected efficiency on the team, I was quite satisfied with the extra effort.

So you can imagine my shock when I found myself receiving a sound dressing-down shortly afterwards – from my line manager, saying in future, he, not me, must respond to all emails from management. Never mind a situation where I’m reasonably expected to voice an opinion. In such a case, I was obliged to brief him on precisely what to say.

It was starkly at variance with the impression I got during the job interview. I had been encouraged to be proactive, to take ownership of my remit and be creatively results-driven. When the time came to leave that job, I took my fair share of lessons learnt.

My experience may have been slightly out of left field, but the phenomenon is common enough. For many corporates, ‘our culture’ is just another opportunity to tout mainstream clichés – like equality, enabling environment or employee-centric. If that’s translating so well in practice, why do many people still talk about feeling excluded, or worse – constrained to morph into some corporate monolith just to keep up? To some degree, we are required to conform tightly to a siloed work personality and somehow hope to distinguish ourselves by our individuality. It’s a massive balancing act.

I suspect part of the problem is because an organisation’s culture-fit and values are usually subject to very narrow interpretations within it – you’re either part of the dominant few or among the adaptive masses.

If it’s true that few things will shape your overall job performance as much as your personality, then rationally, not every candidate with the same abilities can flourish at the same job. Your cultural fit is at least as important to your success as skillset. HR probably sussed that ages ago. The issue is: every part of the recruitment process seems skewed to provide would-be employers with avenues to assess a candidate’s fit – and limited means for a reverse feedback. At any rate, the candidate is typically too busy trying to fit the bill to think about how the organisation might mesh with him or her. I like to believe if I was moving in with a new roommate, I’d naturally want to establish we could get along too – not just that the apartment is cosy or I’m able to meet my share of the rent. How do we transfer that logic into a work context?

I can’t genuinely tell you I ever found a surefire way. I learnt to probe more at job interviews. How would you define success – and failure – in this role? What personality would you say would make a good fit – or a bad fit? To be candid, there’d always be scripted answers to those. And depending on how much one needs a job, one is inclined to be unconcerned with organisational culture as a binary process just then.

So, I still take my graded personality to work. Sometimes I make honest mistakes, sometimes I nail it. It may not always guarantee the outcomes I want, but by and large, it makes it my authentic journey. How about you?

Post originally published on LinkedIn and image from situational communications