Do I have to be like them?

It’s not something that anyone gets to see or sample during the interview process for a job. Nor is it something you can read about on an organisations website. And yet it can prove to be such a significant factor that it can determine how long you stay with the organisation and whether you look back on your experience as the best years or the worst years in your career. We’re talking about the behaviours which are accepted and expected as part of the character and culture of the organisation. In some organisations, or parts of an organisation (specific functions or teams), while there may not be overt pressure to conform to the signature set of behaviours (language style, content and phrases, interaction style) non-conformity can keep you on the outside as they act as your passport to being visible, legitimate and credible.

Organisations and functions with a profit imperative; sectors such as STEM; and, levels of leadership which continue to have a very high ratio of men to women are prone to a distinct profile of behaviour and language associated with masculinity. Needlessly competitive, abrupt, action-centred rather than considered, and with banter-centric socialising interactions and jargon both in work and after work - behaviour exemplified at the furthest extreme by the city investment boy-banker behaviours that played such a significant role in crashing the global economy. It’s aptly called ‘the bro-code’ in the digital sector.


In practical terms, what matters about this is whether having to conform to the ‘in’ behaviour and language, in order to be heard, to be credible and to thrive is acceptable or not. And actually, this is an individual judgement. What bothers me, may not bother you, in fact, it may suit you very well.

However, if conforming to a model of behaviour which isn’t in your normal repertoire is uncomfortable, what can you do about it?

As Arianna Huffington points out, these behaviours are part of a culture which will have developed over time and which are tacitly supported by organisational, functional or team leaders. If leaders don’t support the culture they have it in their gift to turn the tanker, and model or impose new standards of behaviour. When you are just a member of the crew on the tanker you can’t change its direction – your zone of influence is much smaller. This is an important distinction. You need to recognise what you can change and what you can’t (and what the shades are in between) to save your time, energy and angst.

The golden rule is therefore...

Make changes when you can; conform when you can't and get out if it's doing your head in.

Make changes when you can

In the early career stages your sphere of influence is limited, so most changes you make to behaviours or language will focus on the immediate proximity. However, as pointed out by Debra Meyerson in ‘Tempered Radicals’, small ripples can carry a long way if you drop your stone in the right place. So, pick your battles. Alternatively, bide your time till your influence is greater. As you climb the ladder – running a project, a team, a function - you can make improvements, creating your own micro-culture, then meso- and eventually macro-culture.

Conform when you can't

 The truth is that we are all constantly adapting to different people and different situations. It is just how we successfully navigate the complexity of human relations. We use different language and behaviour with our friends; our parents; with the person we order our coffee from; or the person sitting next to us on the bus / train / tube. So, equally we must expect that there will be a social norm for the work place which we need to figure out and adapt to in order to succeed.

You therefore need to evaluate how much of an issue conforming to a given culture and its normalised language and behaviours really is. Does it clash deeply with your values and integrity or just irritate you a bit from time to time? Do you have to be an alien in your own body the whole time or just act the part occasionally?

Get out if it's doing your head in

If you have taken stock of the situation and found, on balance, that it’s taking you too far away from who you are comfortable being, and for too much of the time, then defend your sanity and get out. It is better to leave while you are feeling positive, strong and in control than to leave it till you’re at a really low ebb as this may affect your outcomes as you pursue opportunities with better employers. However, organisations can’t respond and change if they don’t know there’s an issue. So, if all else has failed, make sure you use your exit interview to let them know why they lost your talent.

Get in touch if you you’d like to discuss this challenge or any others you face in securing the opportunities and progression you want.

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