Culture Shock – A New World of Business

Misunderstanding your culture can make you life miserable.

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

What is it like adapting to a new business culture? I have had this experience myself several times, and I found certain cultures easier to adapt to than others. Some places are rather rough and tumble, while others are fairly structured and process oriented. I found the companies that most reflected my personal style were easier for me to acculturate to.

If giving advice to help new members of any organization, especially when noticing that the culture is very different, and expectations are not what you expected, I would first provide the all-important laundry list of “dos and don’ts.” Without these guidelines, failure is bound to happen, and very quickly. However, there are a couple of general principles and practices which are helpful in many situations where business culture is an issue. The eHow website is surprisingly useful in supporting a new employee to an unfamiliar organizational culture. I read their suggestions wishing I had some of these helpful hints available to me when I went crashing into my new assignment.   (

  1. Be open-minded and don’t judge everything as to being wrong or negative. Hold back your judgment and try to observe and understand everything new around you.

This advice would have been helpful to me, as my first public comments about my new office space were along the lines that it was a “toilet”.  I was angry because I had not been given a tour of the area before I was hired. My previous company had recently built an amazing office area, and I was a key contributor to the design as well as the construction plans. Unfortunately, my negative observation was only one of many comments I made in the first few years of my employment. I started off on the wrong foot, and it has been an uphill battle ever since.

  1. Don’t filter a behavior or a reaction to your own understanding or to your own culture. Try to understand why a comment has been used or said, it might be their way of greeting. Try to explore and give it time, you might realize after a while why something was said or done.

I had come to my company directly from a competitor. For the longest time people referred to me by a pejorative name for that company They said I came from “The Evil Empire” or “The Dark Side”. At first, I found these remarks mildly amusing, but after a while I became very upset when hearing them. It was like being one of the New York “Yankee in Red Sox territory (and yes, I am a Yankees fan, too). I became defensive and fought back with comments like “Well, the Evil Empire is cleaning your clock.” (Which they were.)  And “if you want to know how to win a contract, maybe you’d want to know how the Dark Side does it.” I now finally realize (after 8 years) that my company has a fear of the competition, and that my former employer had eroded much of my mew company’s business, even business that was sole source. There is huge resentment that they were outsmarted and outmaneuvered by the competitor. My point has always been that my new employer just needs to get better but having a “Yankee” in their midst was just too much for a lot of people.

3.  it’s very important to get to know people from the place. The best way to overcome this culture shock is by meeting the locals. Getting to know their habits and behaviors which we might learn to live better than our own cultural ways.

After eight years in the company, I finally understand what motivates people. There are a few important things to know about the culture’s habits and behaviors. The most important cultural issue to remember is you must establish a network and make connections at the director level and above. Also, if a VP doesn’t know who you are, you could easily be eliminated when it comes time for layoffs. Since the company is so bureaucratic, access to the top is very limited, so it’s best to lay the groundwork with decision makers and influencers and network to keep those connections fresh, as your job may some day depend on it. Other habits I find interesting are the constant stoking of the rumor mill, as well as the more serious problem of theft. Power cords, CDs, and other items both personal and company are routinely stolen. I had to learn to lock my door if I had valuables in my office.

  1. It’s always important to be happy and to maintain a sense of humor. Laughing and being happy will allow you to adjust quickly and it will certainly help you make friends faster.

Finding a few good friends to share a laugh with is really vital. I scheduled regular lunches with one or two people on a routine basis, just for the sake of sanity. Also, I collected Dilbert comics that my work friends and I share. Some hit the nail right on the head. As we say, “You have to laugh, or you’d cry.”

If we are lucky, we’ll all experience a new culture at work, whether through management change or job change It’s keeps us fresh and helps us become more flexible. I’ve learned over the years to become more sensitive to other cultures, and not feel so threatened when I’m challenged or slighted. My perspective is that it’s their problem, and I’m not going to make it mine. I stay calmer and more in control, and that helps me perform better and better adapt to that new world. After all, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

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Mary T. O'Sullivan

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, Member, International Coaching Federation, Society of Human Resource Management. Candidate, Master’s Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM. Mary O’Sullivan has over 30 years experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles, she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from status quo to new ways of thinking, through offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. In additional, Mary holds a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education, and taught high school English for 10 years in the Syracuse, NY area.