Guest Article: Workplace Culture and How it can Open Doors or Slam Them Shut

Thank you to our guest writer Tristam Johnson:

Workplace culture is that invisible standard guiding interactions affecting all in subtle subliminal ways. You probably don’t notice when and how this standard first affects your day but it is there when you arrive, greet, settle in, and begin to organize your day. Who do you say hello to first? Do you repeat the same message every day? Is the response always the same?

What does workplace culture look like?

Does the office culture make you feel wholeheartedly welcome, or, is there instead a bias against fully accepting you until there has been some proof of merit, of value. Do you get the sense that you are being observed and evaluated by watchful critics looking to see if you measure up, really fit in?

“Fitting in” may in fact be how you react to certain topics, how you relate to age, gender, or ethnicity. A subtle undercurrent of this office culture may support a biased theme that is not readily obvious. It may also exude a profound mistrust of centralized management, of power and decision-making in the hands of one person.  

While thinking about office discussions I’ve witnessed, I can picture the predictability of how a discussion comes to a conclusion. A forceful voice that has simply taken charge over time becomes the final vote, the wrap up, and due to power inadvertently given that voice by those sitting at the table, there frequently is no challenge.

Even where people choose to sit subscribes to a certain, perhaps vague, cultural hierarchy. Our need to establish a space results in the inadvertent setting of rigid boundaries. In the extreme, touching, either shaking hands, or a simple friendly gesture, may be a gross violation of that safe space boundary. Those involved in the evolution of these boundaries simply accept which space belongs to whom, which chair is whose, and office life simply moves forward. The new employee may not understand the rigid respect allotted to this reserved space and may eventually conclude that there are unspoken rules about place and order, and worse, limits on friendship, collegiality. Until they are thoroughly comfortable with the nuances of office cultural routine, a new employee may struggle with the unwritten message attached to space.

So why do I need to know about this?

Culture sets the unwritten but critically essential norms to your workplace; respecting them allows you to succeed. Office culture affects how you interact and with whom. It affects the steps you need to take to offer ideas, to suggest changes, and to ask for decisions.

For the office that is truly open and respectful, where inclusion and equality are the norm, the culture reinforces the common commitment to the organization’s mission and vision and values everyone.

But, if the office culture is inhibiting, subliminally orchestrating who speaks, establishing preferred connections and conclusions by a predetermined few, then others in the office will be marginalized. They will feel “left out”. This creates barriers, limitations that affect how and when to participate. A polite deference to one co-worker’s opinion may inadvertently establish the protocol that excludes others, who would certainly feel less confident, more at risk when offering opinions.

Workplace culture can also result from the way senior staff behave and manage. Behavior and management styles are strongly influenced by the top executive. Senior staff who have worked under the thumb of a toxically abusive Executive Director develop survival strategies allowing them to endure the abusive behavior while still trying to enjoy elements of their job. After the departure of the abusive E.D., the survival strategies are still active, because they were the default behaviors that created safety.  The influence on workplace culture is profound and demands sensitivity and patience from co-workers. With sensitivity and patience, staff will eventually feel safe and that the workplace is trustworthy.

How does understanding this help me become successful? What should I hope for?

First and foremost, you need to patiently listen and watch for the clues to interaction, routines, and procedures. As you collect these clues, you will be able to discern the forces affecting everyday performance and the protocols of office collegiality.  

Take the time to listen and observe, watching for limiting influences. The consequence of collecting clues is not to orchestrate change but rather to establish your space, respecting the culture you have joined.

Tristam is a nonprofit management consultant who focuses in workplace culture, project evaluation and sustainability assessments. After receiving his Masters in International and Intercultural Management, Tristam enjoyed 19 years working on community development projects under contract with USAID in 10 Latin America countries.  Most recently, Tristam served as Interim Executive Director to the Landmark Trust USA, building fiscal transparency, annual budgeting procedures, performance metrics, and HR systems.