Monday, January 5, 2015

What I wish I had known :: Lesson 6 :: Be a Culture Chameleon

There is a lot said about organization cultures and how we need to learn and adapt to them to be able to fit in to deliver peek performance.

What is this thing called culture?

Culture is a way of life, whether at home or at office; whether on the street or in a boardroom.  It encompasses behaviors, languages, religions, customs, art, architecture, food, history. Organization culture is really no different from societal culture.

How can we understand organization culture when we join the workforce?

Understanding organization culture is not something that you start on your first day of work like responding to a starter gun at a race.

Culture and understanding of culture is built on a daily basis and from childhood.  It depends heavily on how aware you are of what is happening in the world around you, and how open you are to new experiences and ways of thinking.

It Starts In Childhood

I was born to parents who were from different states & different economic backgrounds, tho' they were both Madhavas, a small sect of Hindus. We lived most our childhood in New Delhi and Port-of-Spain. So as a child I learnt to adapt to different languages, cuisines, and customs.  Carnival and Diwali were both just as important as studying and going to the beach. Though we were strict vegetarians, when we went to the West Indies, my father insisted that we learn how to eat non-vegetarian food, to help us integrate with Trinidadians.

Don't Pretend

When we came back to Delhi, adjusting was difficult as people were less open, customs were different, languages were new.  I had to learn Hindi and Sanskrit in school vs learning Spanish.  I was told not to ask questions vs being encouraged to ask questions. People frowned when I wore shorts or talked with boys.  But, even as a teenager, I knew that I could not pretend to be something I was not comfortable being.  So I did attempt to learn Hindi and Sanskrit, but spoke only in English.  I did get to stand on chairs and outside the classroom by asking questions when I wanted to.  I did wear shorts and play outdoor sports. And, oh yeah, I had more boys as friends than girls. And still do.

Do What Others Do

As a teenager, tho' I already had a reputation of being a rebel, I was never the rebel leader.  I was a follower; not sure if what I wanted to do was the right thing or not, specially given the many, many restrictions that existed in the 80s.  So I followed people.  Did what they did trying to fit in with the crowd.  I went to my first dance party at 11.  Had a boyfriend at 16. Learned to cook somewhere in between. I copied what others did.  I experimented. Waited to see how the cookie crumbled. If I did not like something, I just let it go. And I continued to ask questions of myself and of others.

Study Culture

In the early 90s, when IT was a nascent industry in India, I had the opportunity to travel overseas on training assignments. I knew that I would need to work with people whose language, eating habits, music, way of life was completely different from my own.  And I would have to do this while alone in a strange land.  I was scared.  So I studied.  Both their and my country's history, geography, religions, customs, basic words etc. Both when I was in India and in their country. I learnt how to avoid questions (on religion), how to be diplomatic, evasive, firm, specific in my responses and how to flex my style based on what was needed.  And this was all grounded in knowledge. In my mind, I was my country's ambassador.

Don't Let It Change Your Value Systems

But in all this, don't let anything change your value system. Don't copy for the sake of copying.  Like acquiring an American accent just because you want to sound good when you are speaking English.  If something does not feel right, makes you uncomfortable, then drop it.  It probably is not right.   

Culture is really all about first understanding yourself; your anchors. Then truly understanding, appreciating, and embracing the norms of the society or organisation you wish to be a part of. All built on a foundation of your values.

Culture is what we create.  Culture is what we absorb. Culture is who we are.

Understand and Adapt

But be true to yourself

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