This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.
“That person might destroy our culture.”
I hear that line often in organizations, usually to explain why a potential new hire was rejected. The logic of it is somewhat dubious since cultures are extremely robust and do not accept change easily. Indeed, far from being damaged by a new person joining, the culture is more likely to change that person or drive them out.
When someone joins an organization, they need to come up to speed on appropriate behavior fairly quickly. A good orientation program can help with this, as we’ll discuss in chapter 8. The good news is that people tend to be tolerant of newcomers, provided they respond to feedback. In fact, what typically happens is that other employees will informally inform newcomers when their behavior is inappropriate. Provided the person appears to be attempting to respond to the feedback, their occasional lapses will be tolerated. However, should someone not respond to feedback, the intensity of the feedback escalates into a more formal process which may involve disciplinary action. If all that fails, ostracism often results. At that point, the person may then be fired or may quit because they feel they “just don’t fit in.” The culture has rejected them.
When a senior person doesn’t fit, however, the consequences can be more severe. Recall that leaders are viewed as exemplars of the culture; thus, when a leader fails to embody the values of the organization, this creates a great deal of confusion and cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the unpleasant feeling we get when our actions and values do not match: for example, when the person who does not believe in violence loses his temper and punches someone, he may then feel a great deal of confusion and guilt along the lines of, “How could I have done that?” This will often happen even if the violence was objectively justified, for instance out of self-defense. Similarly, when employees are asked to follow a manager who violates cultural norms, they will often feel guilty or uncomfortable. They might seek to avoid that manager, passively resist instructions, perceive their job as inherently less interesting, and hence less attractive, become less loyal to the company, or even become depressed.
If the person who doesn’t fit the culture is the CEO, the problems are considerably worse. In this case, the reaction will spread throughout the company. Mistakes increase, motivation and loyalty decreases, and many top employees may leave. It also becomes harder to attract new people who quickly find the atmosphere oppressive: an organization filled with unhappy people is painfully obvious and not a fun place to be. Apple under John Scully and Digital Equipment Corporation under Robert Palmer are classic examples of this immune response in action. Apple, of course, eventually rejected Scully and brought Steve Jobs back in. DEC went out of business and was eventually bought by Compaq as employees rebelled against Palmer’s efforts to dramatically change the culture.
Balzac combines stories of jujitsu, wheat, gorillas, and the Lord of the Rings with very practical advice and hands-on exercises aimed at anyone who cares about management, leadership, and culture.