Understanding Culture Is Essential For Every Business

Introducing a new column by former WSJ.com columnist Alexandra Levit on cultural trends in the workplace.
December 09, 2011

My name is Alexandra Levit, and I’m a culture convert.

I’m other things, too. I’m a former nationally-syndicated career columnist for The Wall Street Journal and an adviser to the Obama administration on workplace issues. But what I mean is that I used to think that understanding and adhering to organizational culture wasn’t that important, and now I know better.

In the early 2000s, I moved to Long Island, NY, and went to work in the PR department of a Fortune 500 software company.  The culture was hierarchical and respectful to the point of paralysis, but that didn’t faze me.  I was an ambitious 25 year-old with something to prove.  I fought my way through the bureaucracy and offended people left and right in my struggle for action and productivity.

It didn’t work. At my performance review, my boss told me that I was a “square peg in a round hole.” She said that if I couldn’t fit in better, I should probably go somewhere else. This was despite the many tangible contributions I’d made that year.

So I observed the culture and looked for ways to pursue my agenda while still toeing the line and doing what was expected of me, and that’s when positive things started to happen.  I saw my reputation improve and my responsibilities increase. Say what you will about becoming a drone, but I stayed at the company for four years and earned a terrific living.

Since that experience, I’ve felt that assimilating well into the organizational culture is a critical factor in one’s career success. And I’m not alone. According to Jason Sanders at Management Consulting News, many, if not most, failed hires stem from poor cultural fit. On average, cultural mismatch accounts for half of first-year attrition.

So what is corporate culture, anyway?  I like this definition from WiseGeek.com.

Corporate culture is a term used to describe the collective beliefs, value systems and processes that provide a company with its own unique flavor and attitude. Businesses of all sizes posses some type of corporate culture, in that every company has a set of values and goals that help to define what the business is all about.

Culture can be seen everywhere, from the framed mission statement next to the elevator and the recycling bins in the kitchen, to the way employees dress and management communicates changes to the masses.

No matter how large or small our organizations, none of us are going anywhere without understanding the role culture plays and how we can mitigate it, and that’s what this new column, "Culture Beat," is all about.  Throughout the next year in the terrific OpenForum.com community, we’ll look at some of the new and interesting cultural trends occurring inside the business world, including the latest available research and practices at innovative companies.

You may not always agree with what I have to say, and I’m 100 percent okay with that.  I invite you to post your thoughts in the comment section, and I promise to reply in kind.  Thanks for coming with me on this ride and stay tuned next week for some musings on the intriguing world of holiday culture in the American workplace.

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success.  Moneymagazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

Illustration by Russell Christian.