Culture Shock

The other day, I was talking to a college student who had recently started his summer job.  He had a job that was very similar to what he had done the previous summer, but in a different place.  This meant he was doing mostly the same type of work, but with a brand new group of people.  As he described the differences between the two workplaces, I realized what he was talking about was the difference in cultures between the two locations.

Each location had similar numbers of staff and customers, similar tasks that needed to be done, and similar metrics for success.  However, they had very different cultures.

While both sites completed all their tasks on time (especially the customer facing tasks), one location took extra pride in striving for excellence, exceeding expectations, and completing tasks early.  The members of this staff made an extra effort to look out for each other; actively seeking out ways to help each other, leading to an enhanced sense of teamwork and camaraderie.  They socialized with each other during their off hours, as opposed to the second site where they were  friendly while at work, but happy to go home to their “real lives” and real friends.  After having worked in the former environment, this more distant attitude came as quite a surprise to him.

The single difference that was most striking to him was in how each group handled it when they were asked to do something that they’d never done before.  In one site, if a staff member did not know how to do something, they would ask someone to show them how, and then practice until they could do it perfectly.  In the second location, if asked to do something they’d never done before, most people would find someone else who knew how to do it, and then ask them to take care of it.

While the latter course is certainly the most efficient in the short term (let everyone do what they do best, and already know how to do), it may not be most effective in the long run (what happens if that one person is not available at a crucial time, or leaves the company altogether?).  Both strategies have their place, and it is the job of the manager/supervisor to guide the staff into learning which is most appropriate for that particular company.

Most people are naturally inclined to work one way or the other.  Some people prefer to do the same thing over and over at work, and derive great satisfaction from being the very best at that particular task.  Others are not happy unless they are challenged, and are constantly looking for new things to learn and variety.   My interactions would seem to indicate that most scientists are naturally curious people, who want to know how and why things work, and are excited by the opportunity to do something new.  My friend certainly fell into this camp – his exact words about his new co-workers were “I could have forgiven them for not knowing, if they had shown any interest in wanting to learn.  Instead, they just got someone else to do it for them.”  In his mind it was slacking off, not being efficient to ask the expert to do the task.

To him, learning how to do new tasks was part of his job, and having someone do it for him was unacceptable.  A different staff member might have said “It’s all about being efficient, and getting the job done.  There’s no sense wasting time figuring out how to do something, if someone else already knows.”

When we talk about the culture of a company, we are really talking about a collection of small differences like this, which combine to create the atmosphere in which we work.  When the way you like to work matches that of the organization for which you work, you feel comfortable and confident in what you are doing.  When they don’t match, you just may be unhappy without realizing why.


This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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