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Why Company Culture Can’t — and Shouldn’t — Be Taught: Q&A with Cris Wildermuth

Cornerstone Editors

From performing day-to-day tasks to building the internal relationships necessary to thrive, new hires always have a lot to learn. Since adapting to new company culture is part of that equation, should companies actually teach corporate culture? They can't unless they know what the culture is, says Cris Wildermuth, assistant professor of leadership development at Drake University. We spoke with Wildermuth to find out why understanding culture is the first step and how employees can turn a blind eye to certain parts of company culture.

Can employees be taught corporate culture?

Part of the difficulty of teaching culture is you have to become aware of the culture in the first place. So much of culture is hidden even to the people who hold that culture. There’s so much of our culture that we don’t know that we know. We’ve learned over time because when we did something, someone frowned at us or we received punishment of some sort, but we aren’t necessarily learning it consciously.

When I talk about culture, I use the iceberg metaphor — people are talking about things that are on the surface of the iceberg, but not everything that’s underneath. You could be saying things like, "Around here we have a strong work ethic. We arrive early and leave late." But you may not say, "Around here you’re supposed to speak the truth unless you’re talking to a higher-up in which case you lie like crazy." I highly doubt anyone would want to teach that even if it’s true. The point is, the culture that we wish we had is the one that we teach rather than the one we actually have.

How can companies implement a version Company Culture 101 for new hires?

For starters, people need to have conversations about what culture means. In the workplace, learning and development professionals can organize workshops around what culture means and then employees could be sent out to identify elements of the culture that matter.

When you analyze culture you also look at other things, like hard numbers — who’s being promoted? What are desirable characteristics of employees? What questions are being asked in interviews? An organization might want to have people from the outside help because there are some things that are so obvious that we don’t see them ourselves.

Some people say company culture can’t be taught and needs to be learned through experience. What’s your response to that?

Those that are saying it can’t be taught would probably agree that it cannot be taught because you don’t know what you should be teaching in the first place, and even if you did know you would probably not want to tell the truth. The problem with teaching culture is you’re adding a vector of "should" to it. You’re not only saying this is how things are around here, but also this is the way things should be around here. Therefore if you’re going to be successful, this is what you should do.

Is the culture that you have right now the culture that will really help take your organization to the next level, that will help you adapt to new environmental conditions? If it isn’t, then you could be hurting your chances of seeing changes in culture. That’s another problem: Should we only hire people who fit in? Well it’s likely that people who fit in will be happier, but the other side of that coin is, what if the misfits are the ones who carry the seeds of greatness?

Photo credit: Can stock

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