What To Do About Cultural Dissonance?

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We are unfolding the 5 dimensions of the “Identity as Culture” model through this series of parables that bring culture to light through fiction. Recognition in the Identity as Culture framework is captured by the questions: How is our culture expressed? How do our employees and others receive or experience it? What is unique about this company?

As the elevator doors closed, the familiar tone replaced the din of the lobby bar in his ears. Peter Williams rode up to the ninth floor and all but sprinted to his room. With the door safely locked, he flopped down on the bed and stared at the ceiling, willing himself to let go of the jumbled confusion into which the evening’s events had thrown him.

“What on earth am I going to do now?” he said aloud to no one in particular.

It had only been 5 weeks since Peter joined Atkinson Metals as a member of the sales team. Atkinson’s strong culture was well described in clear communications that seemed to permeate all aspects of the company, and the interview process had been as much fun as it was serious. Yet, while playful, Atkinson was also an intense company. Behind the clever messaging and light-hearted banter was a focused competitor that led its category for good reason. Atkinson’s breakthroughs in client service had locked its competitors out, and it intended to grow that strong positioning. Excellence was expected, and the growing team of employees took pleasure in delivering it. Until he had found Atkinson, Peter had sought in vain for this kind of company throughout his whole career.

When the offer came through, Peter remembered, he was tempted to sign and send it back immediately. But he had previously committed to himself to show restraint, take his time, consult with a few key friends, and think deeply about the opportunity before accepting it.

Everything he learned about the company impressed him. Founded by a small group of entrepreneurs, Atkinson Metals had been wildly successful. From humble beginnings, Atkinson had become the leading broker in the sourcing and distribution of a wide variety of materials, and had consistently sustained significantly better margins than their competitors. Some of this bounty had been invested in growing the culture of the company and alongside commercial success, cultural improvement came naturally, and with it, awards for “best employer” and “company of the year” and “best opportunities”. Once he took the offer, his diligence on Atkinson was confirmed: it was a creative, fun-filled place to work, and he was thrilled to be part of it.

That evening, the dinner with a few colleagues had begun harmlessly enough. Over time though, the wine (excellent as always) began to get the better of a few. Peter was happy to join in the laughter, but then the conversation took an unexpected turn that had caught him off guard. The colorful language was to be expected, but the undertones and implications of the comments made by these particular colleagues revealed attitudes and even values that contradicted what Peter had understood to be basic expectations of every Atkinson associate.

It was this dissonance that had troubled him most, the swelling gap between what he had been told throughout the interview process were the things that mattered, and the kind of conversation in which Peter found himself that evening.

“Just a bit of harmless fun,” someone had said when Peter’s discomfort had made its way, rather obviously, to the surface. He tried to assure himself that the conversation was just that – a few people letting off steam – perhaps with a bit too much wine.

But it wasn’t harmless. It was corrosive. Was this really how people thought and acted despite the aspirational statements in the company’s values and the careful screening he himself had experienced in the recruitment process?

He mused over something he had heard recently; “culture is how we are with each other when the boss isn’t looking.”

If that was true, based on the conversation his new colleagues seemed to each contribute to so willingly, what kind of company was this? He was thinking about not just its words and promises, but what it really was, at its core, in the attitudes and actions and choices of the people who helped lead it? To recognize the real culture of his new company, should Peter look at the words and slogans on the wall and the “best employer” plaques or into the hearts and voices of his colleagues? Which was true?

He was pretty sure of the answer, and he didn’t much like it.

The role was a perfect fit – one he had wanted for a long time, but now he was beginning to discover a bit more of what the place was really like. He could just try his luck elsewhere. But that seemed too easy a way out. If every doctor fled from a hospital because it was full of sick patients, there would never be much healing going on.

This window into the culture of Atkinson could be either a reason to leave or an invitation to stay on resolved to help this great company live out those attributes to which it so evidently aspired. The dilemma haunted him – his needs or the company’s?

As a restless sleep finally came, all Peter knew for certain was that he had a hard choice to make in the morning.

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