Misunderstandings of all sorts are inevitable as you start a new job. When you're ramping up in a new role, you get confused, and you confuse others. Over the years as a consultant, I have worked with many different clients, and I have become accustomed to meeting new people and groups regularly. There are a lot of common missteps that happen when you are new to a group or organization. Here’s what I have noticed…a few areas where people stumble.
Starting a job at a new organization? Here are some common stumbling blocks as you get to know the culture
- Sense of time – When I first started supporting federal government clients, I was always late to meetings. It was because I was dialing in on time—i.e., connecting at 1:00 p.m. ET for a meeting scheduled at that time. Meanwhile, the others started connecting a couple of minutes early, so the meeting could start as the clock rolled over to 1:00 p.m. Needless to say, I adjusted quickly.
- Terms of address – Americans have become more casual in recent decades, and most exchanges are on a first-name basis. But not all. When I worked at Booz Allen Hamilton a decade ago, everyone was called by their first name with one notable exception: Dr. Ralph Shrader, CEO. He was not the only PhD in the 25,000-person organization, but he was the only “Dr.” Over the years, I have noticed some former military colleagues stumble in this area. When entering a workplace where everyone is on a first-name basis, they struggle to edit out the “Mr.” or “Ms.,” which has the effect of creating distance and a power dynamic. You’re seating yourself at the kids’ table if you call your boss “Ms.” And no one else does. As uncomfortable as it may be, at work you want to do as others do.
- Email style – This may seem odd in the business world, but some organizations (hello, academia!) still treat email as letters. A message might start with “Dear…” and what follows is in traditional paragraph form. Other organizations treat emails more like text messages. Short and choppy. And that’s okay. It’s not disrespectful. It’s their way. Most of the places I work in do something in between—emails are on the shorter side, bulleted lists are abundant, and there’s a greeting at the top and a signature at the end. Usually the opening greeting is a “Hello, Sam,” and not a “Dear Sam.” And the closing is simply a “Thank you!” and not a more formal closing such as “Sincerely” or “Best wishes.”
What can you do?
When in doubt, ask. “I am used to doing this____. What do you all do?” You'll find that everyone is an anthropologist at heart. We love talking about organizational quirks, business jargon, and workplace culture. And we never make time to do it.
Another great question, as you do your round of meet-and-greets, is to ask, "When you first started, where did you stumble?" People love to share stories of mishaps from their early days (and be sure to find out also how they recovered from the set backs). Asking and sharing these stories opens up a dialogue so others will feel more open to give you feedback later on, as well.
It’s no surprise that most of the stumbling blocks I noted above relate to communication. We get work done through talk, and as a linguist and communications consultant, that’s what I am tuned in to notice. But...What have I left off the list?