There have been thousands of books, articles, and posts written about culture shock. It’s not a new topic. It’s been explored by many researchers all over the world. Culture shock is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes”. It happens to most people leaving their home countries, moving abroad, and experiencing a new environment. Culture shock stages have been described thoroughly.
Firstly, we experience the honeymoon stage, when all new aspects of life are rosy. We enjoy trying new things, meeting new people, and experiencing new adventures. We are curious to get to know new surroundings. The life is good and nothing can change it. We are positive and nice to others and they pay back with the same. No honeymoon lasts forever…
After the beautiful time, reality kicks in – negotiation stage. We realise there are also negative sides. People we had met turned out to be false. They aren’t actually as nice as we thought. New places we had just discovered became boring, and there is nothing really to be excited about. We have discovered more rules that we either don’t understand or don’t agree with. It has turned out that we need to make more effort to communicate to others, and understand the real meaning behind what others say. We also get to feel misunderstood sometimes. We have lost the enthusiasm, positivity and the natural drive that had pushed us before to enjoy all new things. Depending on the person the reaction differs. It may be anxiety, stress, frustration, fight mode, isolation etc. Unfortunately it is rarely positive. The good news is that this stage doesn’t last forever either.
After the weeks or months of struggling, fighting and moaning, we adjust to the new reality (adjustment stage). We develop a routine, habits, and customs that help us to go through the new life and enjoy it, or at least not be bothered by difficulties or differences.
The last stage is adaptation, when we fully immerse ourselves into the foreign reality and move forward comfortably.
As with every other model, this is general and broad. For some it works as described, but for others it may not make much sense. Firstly, it is good to recognise the stages, acknowledge them and consciously manage them for our advantage. Secondly, the negative effects of culture shock may be minimised by developing CQ, Cultural Intelligence - an overall capability to function effectively in various cross-cultural contexts.
This time I got to think that instead of the culture shock how could we benefit from it in a context of a corporate culture? All employees who join organizations experience the honeymoon stage. They are usually excited about their new assignments, environment, colleagues, bosses etc. They are ready to conquer the world, to shine, and make the most of it. No one wakes up in the morning and starts thinking ‘what crap can I do today?’ People by nature want to do a good job. So they wake up, go to work and do their best to perform well. True, not everyone is an ambitious type who wants to climb up the career ladder to become a CEO in their early 30s. But whatever people do, they want to do a decent job. Well… most of them at least. Especially when they start a new job. They bring in their own culture, a set of values and beliefs, their habits, their traits, and their behaviours are reflected in a working style. They did their homework before they applied for a job. They found out during their job interviews what organizational culture they can expect. They know whether they fit in!
Some companies prefer to recruit people for their competencies, skills, technical knowledge or experience, without looking at the cultural fit. That’s where the problem starts. Competencies can be developed much easier than people values, beliefs, assumptions and personalities – all aspects that decide on cultural fit.
New employees may experience culture shock. In the negotiation stage if it turns out that the job they were supposed to do is too difficult, they get frustrated. Or if it is actually too easy, they get bored with it quickly. People they work with may not be as friendly and nice as they were at the very beginning. Their bosses are different to how they looked and sounded during the job interviews, when they talked about the job and the company in such convincing and tempting terms. Ooops! It is not what they expected! Here it comes, THE CULTURE SHOCK!
The reasons behind such a phenomenon may fall on both sides: employee and organization, or as it usually happens it may be a mix of both.
Employees don’t make efforts to take advantage of what they can learn and how they can benefit from the new experiences. They jump into conclusions too quickly. They give up easily, become negative about the whole environment, get demotivated, and don’t enjoy their work. Such people have no right to do well, automatically their performance dwindles.
Employees may have negative experience from the very beginning, they may not get on well with new colleagues, no one inducts them well into their tasks, they may be put immediately into the craziness of day-to-day work when they are not trained well enough, they may not be given feedback around their performance, no one notices their efforts, no one recognizes their achievements, no one redirects them in case they do something wrong. They move forward, with no joy, no awareness, and no motivation.
All those who go abroad find it harder to take a decision and return, for numerous reasons, to list a few - logistics, family matters, perception of failure etc.
However those who join ‘a wrong’ company try to stick with it for a year or so… because ‘job hopping’ will look unprofessional, awkward, and silly on their CVs. Regardless, it is much easier for them to leave, find a new job, and a new company with a better cultural fit.
Some of them may fight and struggle, but try to get over it and get into the adjustment and adaptation stages. Depending on the person, their skills, and maturity level, they may still turn such a situation into their advantage. Some may just last, do what is expected from them, but not contribute as much as they could.
Was it Jim Collings who said in his famous ‘Good to great’ that for every leader, every organization, more important than a skill of motivating employees is a skill of not demotivating them immediately after they join the business? No organization can control employees’ reactions, behaviours, attitudes, moods… but every organization should keep people motivated by creating the right environment and culture. The pivotal role here is played by leaders.
It’s that simple!
Leadership skills such as communication skills, especially active listening, SMART goals setting, providing constructive feedback, supporting new joiners, coaching, and mentoring are crucial in that process. We won’t avoid CORPORATE CULTURE SHOCK. New employees enter a new unknown world, world of foreign values, beliefs, habits, rituals. Some of them will work well, some not.
The other way to save employees from experiencing culture shock is to recruit for cultural fit rather than skills to be able to perform the role. I am not trying to say competencies don’t matter, but they can be relatively easily developed, whereas people’s attitudes and cultural fit based on their values and beliefs are difficult to change. Employees who do not fit into your organizational culture may be culturally shocked, give up and leave unless they are supported throughout their early stages so that they can cope with the unexpected and thrive. It won’t happen without the support of leaders.