Do you feel culture shock in your new job?

Just last month I headed on a birthday adventure from my stomping grounds in Minnesota to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. It was my first time in Europe, and I wanted to immerse as much as possible. I also wanted to be the ideal visitor. Well, I’m thrilled to say that my experience was so wonderful that I cannot wait to go back. That doesn’t mean it went without a hitch. And it was a new experience. I tried hard not to be any sort of stereotypical American visitor. I got frustrated with myself when I didn’t know the language. I learned that when you leave a store, you should always acknowledge a good-bye and thanks, even if you only window shopped. And this was just cutting the surface.

It’s common to experience culture shock when starting a new position. It’s not unlike many of the feelings those who visit or move to new cultures have. By definition, culture shock is the feeling of insecurity and apprehension one may feel in a new environment. Standards, behaviors and protocol that we take for granted may well be different. My client Julie recently experienced angst when she transitioned from a small startup business of 30 total staff, to a large global corporation. Yes, she’d researched her employer and the job. But there are some things one finds out when one has been there. That’s the way it is with travel. That’s the way it is with jobs. I definitely see parallels with my trip and a few of my clients’ experiences in jumpstarting new job success.

·        Be open-minded

Her first day on the job, Julie found herself armed with what felt like a zillion things to remember. Policy manual. Job description. Customer files. Instructional binders. Sure, she felt overwhelmed. But she kept a mindset that they gave her only what would help her. She approached a mentor colleague and her direct supervisor to ask how they felt these things should be prioritized. They were happy to help. And she whittled away until she absorbed the new information. If she didn’t get the gist of something, she asked. And slowly but surely, a picture was painted on the whats, whos, whens, hows and whys of things. Ah-hah!

·        Make an effort to see below the surface

After 15 years with a global non-profit, Dan found himself back in his hometown (his choice) working for a community outreach organization. Culture shock? Oh, yes. On his first day, he realized (someone told him for his own benefit) that he had offended a regular customer to the food shelf. When Dan had greeted the man with “How are you?”, he meant only “hello”. The man on the receiving end interpreted it as a genuine interest in how he was doing. It did not set well when Dan proceeded to turn his back and go about his business without waiting for a reply.

Don’t assume you know the culture. It may not always be as evident as the above scenario. Expert and psychologist Geert Hostede wrote that “culture is like an onion that can be peeled, layer by layer, to reveal the content.” Sometimes it takes a long time to really understand and know a culture. One of the best ways to get to know the culture is to know the people. Respectfully ask questions, read everything about the company you can get your hands on, and participate in as many events and activities as you can.

·        Keep (or get) a sense of humor

While you’re adjusting to a new organization, mistakes may happen. Peter felt like crawling under his desk when during the second week on a new job, he was asked to go get a male colleague up several floors. He went into the ladies’ restroom by mistake. Mary tripped on the stairs her first day, and fell in front of her boss. Jeanie called her new boss by her old boss’ name. Barry’s oops was more subtle. He thought he would order in pizza for his new team. Turns out that role was already taken by someone who felt it to be her turf. Stuff happens.  If you make a cultural or other gaffe, laugh at yourself. Others will likely laugh too. It makes you human. People like human. And according to a recent survey of CFOs by Acountemps, 80 percent of chief financial officers (not always considered the most humorous of roles), felt that a person’s sense of humor was important in fitting in with corporate culture. Sometimes, a little levity goes a long way toward salvaging your confidence,  building rapport among colleagues and diffusing workplace tension.

Don’t expect to immediately understand or fit with a new organizational culture. But don’t ignore the situation either. Give it your best. Keep working at it. And I believe that keeping in mind the two Rs—results and relationships—will ramp up your success with a new employer culture. Ask questions as to what your new employer’s needs are. Pay attention to those windows of opportunity. Deliver results. Document those results. Get to know everyone in the picture. Your peers. Your supervisors. Your clients. Your vendors. Act with integrity. Give back. Be human. That foreign culture will feel like home.


Photo: Alex E. Proimos

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