I need some insight in figuring out what type of workplace culture I’ve joined. I joined a new company in April.
At first it seemed friendly enough. I wasn’t looking for perfection nor to assume that my co-workers would become my “friends.” Though I’m at a loss to define it. It’s a very quiet, busy, cubicle environment (only mgrs have offices) and most everyone (including my team) keeps to themselves, except for the occasional happy hour. I’ve been at my new job since April — I have observed that even the managers do not associate or collaborate with each other — their doors stay closed a lot.
Functionally, we’re all in the same group. So… a week ago we had our annual group picnic – it was about fifty of us. The picnic was slated from 12-3. Most of the women were dressed business casual, a few were casually dressed, and a couple of business suits – with flip flops or tennis shoes. Mind you, the picnic notice had pictures of volleyball, softball, etc. No — we didn’t play . It was very awkard and strange to me — we all sat down to eat — conversation was minimal — and I noticed that even the other departments did not really talk to each other — it was like sitting in the company cafeteria. There was no music as well.
I thought it weird because I learned most of them have worked together for 5+ years – some have been there 10-15 years together. While I ate, I struck up a conversation with a woman I’d just met, and those immediately next to me. When I finished eating, I looked up…. more than half of the people had left the pavilion, including every one of my team members, and my boss. Some were walking down towards the lake, and some were standing in the parking lot next to the pavilion. I don’t know where the others went. Twenty min later (and just a bit irritated), I found my team and a few others on the putt-putt golf course. As each team played, conversation was very minimal, a joke or two, and more disturbingly, my boss (I was adopted to her team after showing up alone) and another woman stood apart from our team, giggling and whispering to each other the whole time — like teenagers. When the game was over, the scores were announced and we all headed back to the pavilion. A few people went straight to their cars and left. I followed the rest of the group back to the pavilion. It was 2:30 — the pavilion was empty, the food had been packed up and everyone else was gone. There were only 8 of us left. My boss looked around and asked “who was going to stick around.” All said “not me” She said okay…and said ‘See you tomorrow.’
What am I missing????? There’s definitely an undercurrent — not totally unpleasant — but I can’t put my finger on it. No one seemed hostile towards the other, but the picnic seemed like a company of strangers… or do I just feel like I’m on the outside?
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY JENNIFER GLUECK BEZOZA
Dear Cultural Misfit,
The culture of your new employer certainly does sound stiff and siloed. In addition, it sounds as if the relationships among colleagues are fairly superficial and transactional in nature. It’s obvious from your inquiry that you see work as not only a way to make a living and practice your profession, but also as an opportunity to be connected, build relationships and have some fun (when and where appropriate).
I’d be interested to know if the organizational performance suffers as a result of the lack of collegiality and communication across managers and departments. In some fields, it may be less critical than others, and the hard-driving, quiet closed-door culture may suit the nature of work your colleagues need to perform. You don’t mention the field of work, so it’s hard to comment in this regard.
Much of your description of the culture centers on the annual picnic and the awkwardness that you experienced among colleagues who, in many cases, have worked together more than five years. While I concur that it does seem odd how little interaction and collegiality there was across departments and how quick people were to depart the event, I would not put so much weight on a company “social” function. Speaking from personal experience, company social events, such as the annual Christmas party or the departmental outing, can feel forced, overwhelming and obligatory for employees. This, in of itself, can change the dynamic of the event and make otherwise friendly individuals want to “eat and dash.” I would refrain from putting so much emphasis on this one event for the time being.
Given that it’s only been a couple months on the job, I would not yet lose hope. Instead, I would challenge you to build relationships one person at a time, and in that way, you might transform your experience of the culture as well as others around you. So how might you go about building those relationships and giving this environment a chance?
See the following tips below.
1. Look to understand and integrate into the culture.
Set up a few one-on-one conversations with your experienced employees, and inquire what makes people successful here? What keeps them here? What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started? Do you have any advice on how to best acclimate here? Instead of standing outside as an observing judge, look to join the culture and see it from a different perspective.
2. Take a personal interest in your colleagues.
It may take some time for individuals to open up, but look to build relationships one person at a time. Ask someone to lunch. Ask individuals about their lives outside of work. (E.g., Where do you live? Going on any summer vacations? Does your schedule allow you to take on any pursuits outside of the office?) Be sure to respect peoples’ space and work time, so you may want to ask these questions at the water cooler or in the hallway.
3. Bring fun to into the workplace.
This tip builds on the previous one. It sounds as if you may need to bring your energy and your social nature to work. You might choose to bake a cake or decorate a cubicle for someone’s birthday. You might bring coffee into work on a Friday, just because. Maybe you discover that another colleague enjoys the same TV show, so you make a weekly date to debrief on the last episode. Perhaps you initiate and organize a volunteer opportunity for employees before or after work. There are endless opportunities for you to be a contribution at your workplace.
4. Expect less from your relationships at work.
At the end of the day, you work to earn a living and get a job done. If you find that your colleagues aren’t interested in having “friends” at work, even after attempts referenced above, than perhaps you should invest more of your energy in family and friends outside of work. This will require you to reframe your expectations about relationships at work.
At the end of the day, this organization may or may not be a cultural fit for you, but it seems you need to allow more time and give it a chance. Who knows, you could be the best thing that has happened to this organization if you decide to create change from within.
Thank you for writing Office Politics.
Jennifer Glueck Bezoza, MA
Jennifer Glueck Bezoza has an MA in organizational psychology from Columbia University and a BA in psychology and humanities from Stanford University. She currently works in Organizational Development for the largest not-for-profit home health organization in the country where she focuses on succession planning, leadership development and coaching. Previously, she worked for GE Commercial Finance and HR consultant, Towers Perrin.