Every organisational culture has unwritten rules for How Things Are Done. Leaders and trainers need to understand their own culture so that they can help new hires upgrade the ingrained habits and understandings that they’ve unconsciously carried forward from previous employers.
When you notice a colleague performing a task so poorly that it’s bound to end in failure, what do you assume about that colleague’s motivation? That they’re incompetent? That they’re deliberately being difficult? Maybe that they’re ignorant about the ‘right’ way to perform the task? Consider instead that your colleague might be doing the work exactly as they were taught by a former employer. That’s because many (if not most) work-related tasks are defined by complicated process steps; how a worker achieves the desired result can sometimes be more important than the quality of the output. Those process steps can be counterintuitive, since they were engineered to achieve a result that’s not obviously linked to the output itself.
As an example: my kids went to the same neighbourhood elementary school for all seven years. The rules that they learned as weans carried them though start-to-finish. I didn’t have that experience. My folks moved to a new city when I was due to start Kindergarten and decided to have me skip it (it was optional back then). I also hopped from school to school to school, constantly ‘starting over’ with new cultures, new buildings, new peers, and new expectations.
This got ten-year-old me into a bit of trouble at my third elementary school. Our class’s go-to time-wasting activity was penmanship drills: our teacher kept us busy by having us write rows of cursive letters. We were required to fill up an entire page to complete the drill.
The exercise was torturous for me because I was consistently the last kid to finish. If I wrote the letters properly, it would take me so long that I’d hold up the rest of the class and vex everybody. If I hurried to complete the task in the time it took everyone else, I’d write so sloppily that the teacher would be doubly-vexed. It was a no-win situation.
Looking back on it, it seems like the primary objective of our ‘handwriting’ and ‘art’ classes was to prepare us to transcribe our textbooks in a post-atomic age monastery (a la Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz).
It took several months of me holding up the class for lunch, gym, or recess before my teacher made any effort to learn why I was so slow. Yes: months. She never actually graded our work; instead, she glanced at our papers to see that ‘enough’ text appeared on each kid’s submission and then binned the stack. Time-wasting drill, remember?
My teacher eventually wondered why her least-capable pupil’s work was both slow and shoddy and was chagrined to realize there were a couple of logical, easily-preventable process errors that could have been prevented had she only explained a few local rules to the new kid:
First, paper selection. The kids at this school all used the same brand of U.S. letter size (8.5” by 11”), wide-ruled (8.7mm line spacing) binder paper for their assignments as the school standard – a standard that they’d been taught in 1st grade. Wee little transfer student Keil had come from a school where the kids used whatever paper they had at home; I was using college-ruled (7.1 mm spacing) legal pads (8.5” by 14”). I not only had an extra 3 inches of paper to fill up, I also had more lines on each page to fill in the same amount of space.
Second, the teacher directed us to ‘Fill the entire row before moving on to the next one.’ I’d followed her instructions precisely as-directed, not realizing the class had an unspoken understanding about what constituted a ‘row.’ I started writing at the left edge of the page and carried on to the right edge of page (8.5” of writing). At my previous school, many kids couldn’t afford school supplies; we all doubled- or tripled-up on assignments-per-page to conserve paper. Everyone used the entire sheet of paper. My classmates at the new school, meanwhile, had paper to spare. Each kid had a ream of loose-leaf binder paper at the start of the school year. Compared to my 50-page legal pad, the other kids had paper to burn. Moreover, they all started writing their assignments at the left margin (1.25” in from the edge) and stopped writing at the implied right margin (1” from the edge).
Ironically, my waste-not-want-not approach probably would have been a more appropriate and advantageous technique for a future monk transcriptionist.
No wonder I was taking so long to finish each assignment, right? You can probably imagine the look I received once my teacher finally worked out the issue. We were both upset, but we got things sorted quickly. My teacher made me aware of the school’s customs regarding paper selection and margin compliance and I fell into line (pun very much intended).
Embarrassing as this story is, this illustrates that every organisational culture has its own rules and expectations about How Things Are Done. The problem is, these rules and expectations often aren’t codified or explained to new members. Transmission from member-to-member comes through emulation rather than through deliberate instruction. New people pick up on and comply with local ‘rules’ to fit in.
When a new member appears to violate the unspoken rules, their departure from the norm is jarring; deviation from the expected standard violates a norm, and that makes members of the group uncomfortable. Repeat violations could be interpreted as either a deliberate affront or a sign of incompetence. After all, everyone should want to come into compliance with the in-group; therefore, the only reasons for a colleague to consistently defy a cultural convention would be either willful defiance or else inability … right?
Eh … no, obviously. People ‘carry’ their cultural programming with them from job to job, in the same fashion that little ten-year-old me carried standard classroom practices from school to school. Once a person learns how to perform a process ‘to standards,’ they tend to keep following the process the way that they first learned how to perform it successfully until and unless re-trained.
Leaders and trainers must realize that a significant aspect of making new hires successful requires a solid understanding of their own company culture. It’s the leaders’ and trainers’ responsibility to understand their organisation’s unwritten rules and to explain those rules to newcomers. Help colleagues adapt by showing them how to avoid the common missteps and why the local ‘rules’ are what they are. Explain how and why ‘the right way to do things for this organisation’ came to be.