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Navigating a New Job with a Very Different Culture

Dorie Clark


Just as we become habituated to a country’s culture — we know the “right answer” when someone asks us how we’re doing, or which topics are off-limits with casual acquaintances — the same thing happens in corporate life. We develop an unwritten understanding of how interactions should go, and it can be jarring when we trip across unexpected fault lines.

As an executive coach focused on leadership communication, I’ve spent the past decade working with senior leaders on how to position themselves effectively with new colleagues and stakeholders. Here are four strategies that can help ease your transition into a new environment.

Solicit opinions before offering your own.

Coming into a new environment, you may have been briefed by the board, CEO, or hiring committee, but you can’t necessarily rely on that information. Like all humans, they have their biases and blind spots, and they may be unaware of behind-the-scenes dynamics, like employees who are feuding, or those who exert disproportionate political influence within the department or team.

Before going “on the record” with your agenda (“We’re going to close the Tokyo office”), it’s important to meet both individually and as a group with your new colleagues and employees to suss out potential pitfalls (the head of the Tokyo office is close with a powerful customer), uncover new options, or identify potential allies who share your philosophy. You can ask open-ended questions such as:

  • What do you think we’re doing really well?
  • What do you think we could improve?
  • If you could change anything about your job, or about how we do business, what would it be?

You may end up making the exact changes you envisioned at the outset. But at a minimum, you’ll be more aware of risks and in a better position to mitigate them — and to the extent that your new team shares your vision, you can position yourself as a change agent acting on their behalf, rather than a wrecking ball coming in from outside.

Recognize that a mandate for change has limits.

This is a particular trap for new, high-level leaders. You may have been brought in with the understanding that the previous regime was broken, and it’s your job to fix it. To please the board or the CEO, you “hit the ground running” by firing or reshuffling personnel, launching new initiatives, and jettisoning old ones — exactly what you’ve been told to do.

But it’s quite possible that your peers and employees don’t share the decision-makers’ bleak assessment, and they may be offended by the idea that their work needs “cleaning up.” They may rebel against you, either directly or via passive-aggressive compliance, or back-channel complaints to leadership. The board or CEO will support you for a while, but if the din gets too loud, they may decide backing you isn’t worth the political capital. Indeed, I once coached a high-level executive who successfully implemented the change agenda he’d been given, but whose job was in peril because he’d alienated his team badly in the process.

Identify a “cultural mentor.”

Just as you might when taking an overseas posting, look for a cultural mentor who can help you interpret and navigate the implicit codes of your new environment. Look for someone who has a deep understanding of the corporate terrain, wants you to succeed, and doesn’t have an overt political agenda that could cloud their perspective or cause them to give you biased information. Possibilities might include former company employees that you know through social or professional circles, or respected colleagues in other offices or departments.

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