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Career Column: Navigating culture

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I learned early in my career that the greatest determinant of student success is not intelligence; it’s the ability to effectively navigate academic culture. It is so important, in fact, that I was tasked with developing several projects aimed at assimilating underprepared students into academia, helping them understand the unwritten rules and mores of higher education. In large institutions, cultural nuances vary between departments and within classrooms. Failure to recognize and adapt to these variations often results in pointed attrition. In my current work with employers and new hires, I’m confronted with a similar issue in business culture. We often discuss employees and applicants in terms of fit. I have been giving much thought to how to communicate company culture and departmental and office nuances, as I am preparing to train a new hire of my own.

I am realizing it was actually easier to create training for students. Formal academic culture training fit nicely into established educational structures, and large cohorts provide opportunities for lots of informal training. Most work places lack the structure to provide formal cultural training, and formal training offered by corporate entities often fails to address actual office environments, driven more by brand management than workforce cohesion. There is benefit to formal corporate training, but it must be augmented by informal training, not only from direct supervisors, but colleagues as well. Power differentials inherent to hierarchical relationships inhibit some types of communication. Relationships with counterparts create a support system and opportunity for candid expression necessary for problem solving and establishing support systems.

Ideally, hiring managers would consider this when devising plans for training, but I have found many employers don’t actually give much thought to the training process. Recruiting and training employees is expensive, so failure to well train new hires may be a costly mistake. Smaller companies often do not adequately train and develop employees because of lack of resources, not willful negligence. This means employees may need to seek out training opportunities for themselves. Even if formal training is provided, it is not enough. Be proactive and establish relationships with colleagues in other locations, in different departments, and at various levels of responsibility. These relationships will be a source of valuable informal training. These people will provide you with tips and opportunities to successfully maneuver through company environments and manage office politics.

Some business landscapes can be harsh and rife with conflict. While knowing where potential dangers lurk is important, being drawn into interoffice combat is unproductive and unhealthy, for individual employees and the business as a whole. Navigating minefields is difficult, but a little perspective helps reduce the likelihood of contributing to internal conflict. Take a moment to consider the impact of engaging in the more contentious aspects of workplace culture. Will becoming involved increase your productivity? If the answer is no, it’s best to devote your attention to those people and tasks that will. If becoming involved is unavoidable, try to remain objective and focus on solutions that improve product quality and/or customer experience.

Stephanie McWilliams is Director of Career Services at Charter College, Fife Campus. She can be reached at (253)252-4232 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).