Question: Trouble adjusting to the culture of my new organization

I am a new executive with mostly corporate managerial experience. I have recently joined as the Chief Operating Officer in a mid-sized firm which has a much more open, fast-paced culture.

While I like the openness and energy, I feel uncomfortable when my directions are openly challenged by my subordinates in a group setting.

I also feel unsure of my team talking directly to my boss, the founder and president, without me in the loop. This is a newly created position, so I think their behavior may partly be driven by past practices.

What would be a good way for me to add value without being seen as overly 'bureaucratic'?


5 Expert Insights

If this is representative of the how the organization works, and you're committed to being successful in it, there are traditionally two ways people address this kind of culture fit.  

One is by trying to learn skills that enable them to fit in better--they do a lot of small things, step-by-step, that gradually build comfort.  Coaches and books can help you on this, but I'd also want to find a way to get this insight from your team.  That's a very traditional approach, but will take time.  Also, I see a lot of clients that have pretty much all the skills they need to handle something like this...but still can't bring themselves to do so.

Another approach is more inwards looking--what is it about your beliefs/assumptions/identity that makes this uncomfortable?  How can we re-wire those?  That exploration can produce very rapid shift and it's less "risky" from the outside...maybe more so, in the near-term, from the inside.  The neat thing is, if it can be accomplished, the discomfort goes away right away and you'll find learning from your team something you "can't wait" to do, vs. feel like you "ought" to do.

Which of these is right depends on you.  (You can probably tell that I'm the kind of person who wants to rip the bandaid right off when it's time for it to be removed...but lots of others prefer to peel it slowly and have a lower level of pain for a longer time.  Both get the bandaid off!)

There are two critical components here in establishing your leadership value as you transition to the new culture: what you do to manage yourself and adjust to the new culture, and what you do to demonstrate to your team that you are committed, “fit in” and add value.

The former – self-management – has to do with monitoring your thoughts and reactions and adjusting or reframing them to support your best actions for outcomes. This considers elements like stress management, adequate rest and nutrition and a support system that are especially helpful during times of change and transition to minimize negative thinking and emotional reactions that can flare during times of stress and change.

Next, understand that external/outward leadership behaviors most valued these days, especially given the generational differences in the workplace are: honesty/transparency, open problem solving, willingness to/doing things differently (innovation) and take risk, and a focus on results. These are core attributes in addition to an expectation of strong business acumen, technical capabilities, and strong interpersonal skills.

So, to help you quickly adjust and demonstrate value, I suggest you focus first on understanding the expectations and priorities of your boss, so you can clearly align your efforts, team and resources in that direction. (Should team members go direct to him, they would get the same information, so there is no disparity in focus and direction to create political dynamics. Also, you can communicate that as you are now here – they can come to you vs. your boss, assuming your boss agrees and will support redirecting them to you if they keep coming to him.) Next, get to know each one of your team members – their strengths, interests and concerns. This will start a relationship of openness and trust from which you can build on and better collaborate. Understanding individual perspectives, capabilities and interests will enable you to better utilize and support your team. This demonstrates caring – and employees that feel their boss sincerely cares about them are more engaged and productive (and will come to you verses go around you to your boss).

Lastly, reframe open challenges to your direction not as a threat or disregard, but an as opportunity for you to refine your position or purpose, better educate/inform and influence others, and to expand your own thinking to more quickly correct in action, should you find value in the challenge. I would inquire as to why they are challenging – for example, what are they thinking, concerned about or suggesting instead? If the issue is about the way they are challenging you – i.e., with disrespectful tone or comments – this becomes a private coaching issue to help them develop in giving meaningful feedback and respectfully inquiring or pushing back.

Best of luck.

There have been some great answers by my colleagues above already on this and so I won't revisit ground already covered.  What I see is also missing is that there may well need to be a very frank and open conversation with the founder/president. Inadvertantly, as long as that person holds an open door to every employee policy, they will continue to bypass you when they don't like something vs. coming to you directly to handle it. You need the support of the president to help the other employees integrate a new 'chain of command'. Without it, you will have a constant battle of being second guessed by those you are attempting to lead.

This may be difficult since both the president and the employees are conditioned/programmed/trained to operate in the pre-existing fashion. It will take some diligent communication on both your parts to have a habit shift to the new game you're playing. This is especially a normal scenario when the president is also the founder. If the company has a culture that is a "one big family" culture, then it's even more difficult. It's tantamount to the son being brought into the company by the father after years of everyone being able to speak to the father directly. They feel a sense of loss of privilege and access. It's incumbent on the founder to clarify the new game to the rest of people and to also relinquish whatever 'juice' they've been getting from being the 'go to' person. The president may not have yet recognized the scope of the entrainment and will need to be proactive to support you while helping them adjust.

Perhaps a group meeting wherein all this is sorted out would be in order.

It seems to me that there are two issues:

- How your subordinates interact with / challenge you

- How to deal with your subordinates going directly to your boss

One question is whether these are related and, if so, how. For example, if your subordinates feel that their input isn't respected by you (which could be related to issue 1), that could be a reason to go to your boss (issue 2). It may also be that the issues are unrelated, or related to something else, such as the culture of the organization.

Whether or not people are from different countries (and it may be more significant if they are), there are often different expectations about the impact of hierarchy and how decisions are made. How does it (or would it) feel to you if your subordinates raise valid points you hadn't thought of and if they do so in front of one another? Is that at all difficult for you?

The issue of going directly to your boss seems somewhat different. In addition to addressing what leads them to do that (which might need to be addressed) there are potential negative impacts if you are left out of that loop. It's not (or doesn't have to be) about chain of command and control but about being on the same page and communication.

There is a lot of great fodder here in response to your statement of your current environment.
One issue I see is your nervousness in having your authority questioned by your subordinates.  While I think there is much to be gained from a command and control environment, the world is changing.  And you must change as well.  You need to let go of some of your notions about command and control and be open to new methods of doing things, different ways of buildng consensus and having sufficient confidence in your own abilities to allow others to challenge you.  If you can do this and be open to collaboration and challenge, you may just start enjoying the job of being a coach instead of a manager.