Organizational culture establishes the rules of the road. It’s how we do what we do and how we work together when doing it. It subtly steers us toward the behavioral norms dictated by the collective culture.
Culture is often thought of in context of the big things—work environment, dress codes, policies and practices. But just as in the vast majority of the iceberg is invisible underneath the sea, the majority of what makes up culture is often invisible. But what is not seen or acknowledged can have a profound effect on the organization. Much of what drives our organizational culture is invisible or assumed until it explodes onto the forefront, often with unpleasant consequences.
Years ago I worked for a high-tech semiconductor company that was as detail-oriented as they came. Take the act of recording meeting minutes, for example. Decisions were documented in excruciating detail. Responsibilities were assigned to specific team members with clear expectations and required due dates. Everyone was held accountable, and everyone knew what was expected of them. This was the culture of the company, the expectations that the company and its employees had for one another. And having spent over a decade with this firm, I just sort of assumed that this is how minutes were always taken in any company.
After leaving this company I accepted a position with a small consulting firm. The first thing I was asked to do was to attend a meeting with a client and, if I wouldn’t mind, please take the minutes. Of course I agreed. How hard could it be? So I took the minutes, and after the meeting, sent them out to the attendees.
Two minutes later my phone rang.
It was my new boss. She asked me what in the world was I thinking, sending out those minutes. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t even know how to respond to the question. What was wrong with the minutes? She explained that such detailed information sent the message that we were patronizing, like we didn’t trust the client or ourselves to do the job and that we felt the need to detail every aspect of the conversation like it was some sort of corrective action plan.
Objectively, dispassionately, I could see her point, and I tried to adjust, but the culture that had been ingrained in me for so many years had a hard time letting go. In the end the cultural divide was too great for us to bridge and eventually we both made the decision to part ways.
Even something as seemingly small and insignificant as how minutes are recorded and distributed can have a profound effect on an organization’s culture. How many other such small things are out there, guiding how you work?