When Personality Clashes with Culture

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Written with Kristine MacKain, Ph.D

Joe, a senior executive in a large financial institution, typically speaks his mind and has no trouble challenging the status quo. That quality has been both the bane as well as blessing of his professional life. It has got him to the top of his organization but it has also has backfired on him at times.

Joe grew up in a family of academics in New York. As a young child he had vivid memories of mealtimes in his home. The debate around the table, encouraged by his parents, was vibrant and at times boisterous. No topic was sacrosanct. Religion, politics, sexuality all came under the microscopic scrutiny of four keen minds. “Question authority” was the family’s mantra. Consequently, from an early age, Joe learned to be a devil’s advocate.

Fast forward to his professional career in the financial industry. In his early career, Joe managed a small financial institution near New York City. The culture was entrepreneurial and the communication style with colleagues and customers alike was direct and frank — a perfect fit with Joe’s personality. After ten years of consistent promotions in different financial institutions, he was recruited to a large financial institution in the Midwest that had a very conservative, traditional culture.

Joe liked the pitch he got when he was recruited because it seemed like a good match with his personality: “You are just the type of executive we need. We really want a diverse workforce and also people who can challenge the status quo.”

When he began work, Joe soon discovered that challenging the status quo was an aspiration of the new CEO but not the reality of the long-standing, traditional corporate culture. He quickly learned that what had worked for him so well in the past — communicating directly and bluntly, and playing the devil’s advocate in meetings — was met by discomfort and resistance.

What changed? The behaviors that were acceptable, even celebrated, in one culture were seen in the new culture as inappropriate.

Specifically, Joe’s directness was perceived as brusque and rude.  His strong opinions came across as arrogant. Playing devil’s advocate by challenging authority was seen, in this traditional culture, as disrespectful to authority. Soon, Joe started receiving feedback from management:  “You are a great leader but you really need to work on your people skills.”

Joe was confused because his direct, challenging approach had worked so well for him in his other positions at other companies. He was also flabbergasted because “people skills: was one of his signature strengths. Soon, he was sent for executive coaching to clip the wings of the devil in advocate.

Over the next few months Joe learned about different cultures at work and the importance of adapting to them. He made significant changes in his communication style. He learned to be less direct and backed down from his confrontational role in meetings.

Here are some pointers for entering a different culture:

1. Take time to carefully observe the new culture and their behavioral style before you assert yourself.

2. Find out what the rules of engagement are in the new culture (e.g., do people defer to authority? Are they conflict avoidant?)

3. Develop communication tools that help you adapt your message to your new audience (e.g., use probing questions rather than assertive statements).

4. If your direct style is not working in the new culture, remember that it is not “wrong”; rather, your approach is simply not as effective as other approaches.

5. Keep speaking truth to power (the culture) but do not excessively consume the corporate Kool-aid.

In today’s world, a career (or careers) entails making transitions to different work environments.

Everyone wants to fit into a new work or cultural environment. However, if your communication style is in conflict with the cultural norms, you can quickly set up barriers with others.

  • By becoming more self-aware, you will quickly learn whether or not your style meshes with the style of the new culture.
  • By learning the new culture’s rules of engagement, you will understand how you need to adapt your style to facilitate communication.
  • In becoming more flexible and adaptable, you can build solid relationships early on in the process and make a more successful transition.

What happened to you when you went through a situation similar to that of Joe?

How have you seen culture clash with personality?

Your comments are valued.

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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