How To Survive Office Culture


It is said that our pets grow to look like us as they spend more and more time in our company.  We also have all witnessed long-married couples finishing one another’s sentences and anecdotes.  You too may have, on more than one occasion kicked yourself, for sounding and behaving like your mother or father?

So, what’s going on here?  Are these manifestations part of a bigger thing or just random occurrences?  Unless there is a research I am not aware of that explains and rationalises this convergent look / behaviour, the sensible thing to do is to wait for someone smarter than me to explain it scientifically and rationally.  But, I am not going to and instead, I intend to jump to my own conclusions.

When you plan to join a new company, you would research it in terms of its performance, results, reputation etc., and once you are re-assured you press ahead to the next phase of interviews, where various company representatives paint a rosy or flattering picture of the organisation.  With a good financial package, you accept the offer with enthusiasm and a certain amount of trepidation.

Sensibly, in your first few weeks with the company you tread carefully, observing, listening, asking questions and gauging the company ‘culture’.  At first, you may not like or even understand the group behaviour, especially the office humour and banter.  Eventually though, you get it and start your tentative march along the pre-defined tracks of what works, what is acceptable, while avoiding the numerous mine fields of the unacceptable behaviour.

What is happening here is that you are adapting your behaviours to fit within the cultural norms of that particular company, just like your dog gradually assumes similar postures and moods to you to such an extent that people remark that he now looks like you; which is an exaggerated way of saying that your pooch has adopted your general demeanour.

To illustrate the above point vividly, you often find yourself describing a hilarious scene at work to your partner at home, only to find that at best they crack a faint smile of sympathy and at worst, they tell you they don’t get the joke, which of course drives you to explain the joke and make things worse.  Defeated, you revert to the typical retort of: I guess you had to be there to appreciate the joke.

So, what is office culture and who codifies it?  The simple answer is: no one and everyone who works there.  Clearly, this is not something that is consciously and actively gets worked on by a committee or a Human Resources working group; nor is it something that is contributed to equally by all staff members.  Some have more influence on a company culture than others.

In today’s modern working environments, some cultural aspects are deliberately contrived and codified, with mixed results.  Specifically, companies now list a set of values that they a) wish their staff to behave in accordance with and b) they like to boast about these values to the outside world to show that beneath the hard business exterior of the company lies a soft, moralistic, connected conscience of the whole organisation.

The reason value systems produce mixed results in terms of defining a company culture, or not, is simply to do with whether the company, at the senior level, actually lives by those values.  If, for example, a company is naïve enough to claim that ‘our people are our most valuable asset’ and they systematically treat their staff badly, then that undermines the entire value system and may even create an internal counter-culture that turns the whole concept in to a laughing matter.

Value systems aside, the majority of group cultures (families, companies, clubs, governmental institutions) evolve over a long period of time and are hardly ever created through a revolutionary action by someone or some ones.  Clearly, the big boss at the top has a lot to do with influencing a group culture but, do not under-estimate the degree of impact ‘influencers’ have on a culture.  These influencers tend to be the popular, the admired, the feared, the witty, and the strong communicators.  Irrespective of how high or low their positions might be, they have more than their fair share of contribution to the group culture.

I remember working for a company that employed over 800 people at the time and whenever managers considered introducing a new scheme but were not sure how it will be received by staff, they always applied the ‘Pete and Paul’ test whereby they would ask: how would this idea play with Pete and Paul?

Pete and Paul were not your fictional average employees; they were real staff who assumed the mantle of being the company conscience.  As close friends, they always agreed with one another, their banter was legendary, sharp, and amusing, and when they picked on someone or an issue, they absolutely tore them to shreds.  In short, either because people liked or feared Pete and Paul, if these two approved of someone or something, the someone / something survived and if they disapproved, it was curtains.

The toxic influence of Pete and Paul was such that many others around them mimicked their behaviour and the organisation began to take on a cultural form that was noticeably in their image so much so, that the predominant humour in the office was the type that they popularised which was mainly derogatory towards others and elitist in nature.

So, how do you survive office culture?  There is an easy way and not so easy way of doing it.  The easy way is to observe it, learn it and embrace it in full.  The not so easy way is to try and bring your own value system and wait for a long, long time for it to take effect, by which time it is probably time for you to retire or leave.  Like the Talipot Palm of Sri Lanka, it flowers once 30 to 80 years after planting, drops its plentiful fruit and promptly dies.

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