Corporate Culture: How To Adapt Without Changing Who You Are

A major component of being successful is identifying and adapting to the culture in the workplace. Often times this can be difficult to learn, especially if you find yourself in a position where your own values, cultural background and beliefs seem to be at odds with the culture at work.  If you grew up in Asia or in an Asian household, chances are you’ve experienced this to some degree. I often hear from Asian professionals who struggle with speaking up or navigating a “flat” organization. 

How can you adapt to the corporate culture and still be true to who you are?

Be Aware of Your Own Values and Beliefs

A lot of how well you adapt actually depends on what you do before you even join the team. You may be someone who prefers a more collaborative, creative approach, and tries to defuse confrontation before it happens. You value harmonious relationships on the team. Or maybe you are someone who values autonomy and having freedom in the work you do. By knowing yourself, you’ll be able to see what kind of workplace culture you would thrive in, and more importantly, see where you might not. This fit is often more important than the technical qualifications. While you can always learn new ways of presenting or how you prepare a project plan, the fundamental values that drive you are core to who you are. So look for an environment that will embrace those values.

Do Your Research

Similar to the previous point, you should know what you are heading into before you dive in. Before an interview, research the business and discover their value system or mission statement. If the moment you read it, you react negatively, then this might not the job for you. If you find yourself nodding in agreement, there is a chance that it might be an excellent fit. In an interview, ask questions about the corporate culture of the company and see how they line up with your image of yourself.

Adapting

Even after all this preparation, you might find things are very different from what you expected. A new workplace is a lot like finding yourself in a new country. Things might look the same, but the systems underneath can be completely foreign. 

There are two keys to adapting successfully.

The first is your mindset. Often times the greatest hurdle in adapting is the fear that you need to become: “aggressive,” “arrogant,” “fake,” or “calculating”.  The truth is, adapting to the corporate culture is more about learning and trying different ways things are done. Treat this learning process as adding new tools and options to your professional toolkit.

In the very beginning years of my career, following up with someone was something I hesitated to do. I didn’t want to be pushy and I believed that if someone hadn’t gotten back to me, they must have had a good reason. However, I realized to someone who is extremely busy a follow up call or email is actually quite helpful. And, I couldn’t keep letting things fall behind because of a delayed response. So, I figured out ways to follow up tactfully. It’s a nice skill to have and something I now incorporate in my professional interactions, as needed. The same thing was true about the need to post my managers on updates and issues. I learned how to do that, too, and I was relieved to find that I didn’t have to turn into a “pushy person” to do either of these things. 

Like trying on a new pair of shoes, different ways of doing things can make you uncomfortable. A little bit of discomfort at first is OK. However, a lot of discomfort might signal that this is not the job for you. It happens.

The second is remembering they hired YOU, not someone else. So, don’t assume you have to do things exactly the way people around you are doing them. There will be many ways of doing the same thing or handling a situation that fall within the realm of being “acceptable”. In fact, you may be able to introduce improvements to the existing culture. Think carefully about whether you can still achieve the same results by doing it in a different way. For example, one of your peers might be getting the attention of the senior manager by yelling out across the floor every time he has a great idea. You can just as easily make an impression by sending a quick and helpful summary catching him up on things that happened while he was on vacation. Ultimately, if you can convey what needs to be said, be heard and get recognized for your work, there is a pretty broad range of techniques and styles that can work.

To learn this “new language,” pay attention to the way your co-workers communicate with each other.  In the beginning, you may have to figure things out by trial and error. After a while, the unwritten rules that govern a workplace should become clearer, and you will have a good sense of where there is flexibility vs. what is non-negotiable about the culture of the organization.

When adapting to any culture, it is important to give yourself time to get more comfortable with the differences you may find and learn to work with them. Don’t panic if it doesn’t come immediately. Open yourself to the possibility of change or other ways of doing things. Above all, remember that it is okay to be yourself, that is who they hired.