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When Cultures Collide: Be Aware of Assumptions

When Cultures Collide: Be Aware of Assumptions
Assumptions complicate culture; culture complicates assumptions. 
Lots of times when we hear the word culture, we think of diversity. Fair enough. Diversity is a specialized way of thinking about and addressing culture. This note is not about diversity.  It is about assumptions and how assumptions shape  our organizational culture.
I might work in a highly diverse work force, one that is not diverse at all or like many of us, the work force where I work is moderately diverse. In very broad terms, this diversity is represented by employees from various races, genders, ages, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.
Culture is also related to how the company feels, works, thinks, does things — it’s vibe.
No matter the level of diversity, as broadly outlined above, my company has a culture, a way it “feels”. Your company does, too. The feeling you get when you walk into Wal-Mart is very different from the feeling you get when you walk into Starbucks. One is not better or worse than the other, but, the  feeling is different. Each has its own culture. The best run companies have cultures that are best suited for the type of work the company does.
When I walk into a cell phone store, I experience a certain hustle, got-to-sell-me-a-new-phone kind of vibe. I am very cautious when I go shopping in a cell phone store. I expect a very different experience when I go to my doctor’s office. There I expect compassion and caring and healing. Very different cultures.
How do assumptions play into all this?
When I was in college I worked at a deli. One of my duties was to make sub sandwiches. On my first day I was making an Italian sub, and I put mayonnaise on both sides of the sandwich. So far so good. As I was getting ready to add the various deli meats, my manager came over and said: “Hold on, put some mayo on that. Like your mama used to do for you when you were at home!”
Growing up in a large family we did get to eat deli sandwiches on occasion — and since there were many of us in the family (nine kids) my mother did not lather a lot of mayo on our sandwiches. In fact, a thin layer of mayo on one side and a thin layer of mustard on the other side was the general rule. That was my normal. No hardship. Nothing out of the ordinary. To this day, a jar of mayonnaise can last several months.
With this background, you can imagine, my manager’s comments confused me. Had I given too much mayo? I did put a spread of it on both sides. Knowing how I grew up, you can see I thought I was being overly generous. The manager thought I was being stingy.
I looked at her, feeling perplexed. She grabbed the mayo spreader and just covered the bread with a thick layer.  “That’s how you do it," she said.
Think about the culture of this deli. The manager wanted the culture to represent one of fairness, generosity to our customers, good value for the money. We did not cheat on making these delicious deli subs. Make them big and fill them up.
My culture comments are not about how the manager spoke to me. I am okay with that. If I am doing a task and need to be directed, then direct me. However, the assumption that caused confusion was the manager assuming that her standards about what constituted “generous” was very different from mine. Left unsupervised, I would have done my job, I would have been generous — however, I would have failed to meet my manager’s standards. I would have been generous according to my standards, because I did not know any different.
As we go about putting culture initiatives in place, we must take time to look closely at expectations, communications, messages, standards, and the use of language and words.
Our employees know what they know — that is where their standard starts. Focusing in on culture requires that you define and articulate a standard, one that will become a shared standard for your company. This begins the foundation for your company culture.
My deli sandwich example is intentionally “not important”. Meaning, the amount of mayo I use is not related to any legal, regulatory or ethical standard that must be followed. It is, however, directly related to a company “standard” and does have a direct impact on “customers”. Most of us handle the big things very well; however, we do get tripped up by the little things.
As we work together to improve or change organizational culture we must make sure we are not damaging culture — we don’t want to be trapped by unintended consequences. We can all cite cultural mis-steps that are blatant or make the news. They are easy to spot, and we say “shame” for letting them happen in the first place. However, do we see those mis-steps that are simple, petty, subtle or otherwise hard to see?
As you work your culture initiatives, are you:
Looking at the subtle things?
Asking for various perspectives on important culture messages?
Editing out complex words and using clear and concise language?
Purposely validating expectations around a common or shared standard?
Making sure the method of the message does not get in the way of the message?
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Philip Espinosa partners with people to deliver value: People | Partnerships | Value serves as his tag line. As a strategic human resources leader, he believes that service starts with the customer. His book "Deliver Excellent Customer Service with a SNAP” helps others drive customer engagement using simple and consistent communication strategies. A second book titled "Focus On Your Success - 24 Simple Insights To Drive Daily Achievement" (ebook) helps working professionals view their daily choices through a different perspective. In addition to his writing, Philip works with strategic human capital initiatives and has delivered successful results over a career spanning more than 25 years.

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