Culture Clash in the Workplace (Sep 07)

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When I went to interview for a position at the Boston Foundation — where I ended up working for a decade — I was in my mid-thirties. And I think, in all but content, I was a walking poster child for what not to do in an interview with one of Boston’s more venerated institutions. Prior to this, I had spent my life working in community-based organizations and generally I had one go-to-meeting outfit. The Boston Foundation had a stellar track record in funding grassroots organizing and they had called me about the job, so I got dressed in that one outfit and went over — almost completely unprepared. I was terrified of foundations but felt I needed to move on from my job at the time where I had burnt myself to a crisp on a judicial conduct campaign — it had produced good results but I was exhausted.

Anyway, as I waited in the hushed, dim, and well-appointed foyer, I heard the woman who was to interview me say to her assistant, “will you please go get the woman in the purple corduroy trousers and bring her in.” I almost melted right into my chair. The delicate brutality of that inflection! Omigod! Was I that bad? Apparently! What didn’t I know? But I had a matching vest on!

The way we indicate and re-enforce the culture of our organizations is often like this, a delicate sketching of parameters and guidelines through stories, language, habits, and chilly silence among other things. We let people know whether we tolerate silliness and lightness of spirit or unrelenting seriousness, mean-spiritedness or acceptance, dishonesty or truth at all costs, what types of personalities and cultural backgrounds we value, what types of communication are allowable and what issues are discussable only in certain ways or are completely undiscussable. A friend, Nesly Metayer, talked vividly about this stuff in an article he wrote about the way people related to leadership in Haitian organizations. In my experience, every organization has unspoken cultural rules.

While the sketching may be delicate, the results are often experienced as brutal, albeit hard to actually name — especially by those who end up anchoring them firmly in place. When you take something as a norm, it often becomes an unconscious standard.

How do various nonprofit workplace cultures look and feel to those of us laboring away in them? What do those cultures encourage and what do they discourage? Our readers have been asking us to cover this for a while so we have chosen “the Internal Life of Nonprofits” as the topic of the Winter issue, but we need you to help us get started.

Please send me a description of your organizational culture. Simply reply to this email or contact me here. (We won’t use your name or location without asking). Tell us a story that typifies how it works. What’s the language that is repeated over and over again to shore up the culture? Is there a metaphor or stock phrase that the organization uses to describe itself or an admonition often repeated that is particularly revealing? (One organization I know always referred to themselves as street fighters.) In your opinion, what, in the organization’s history or environment cause things to be as they are?

These stories will help us to be more accurate in addressing the issues being experienced in many different types of nonprofits across the country and in all the different sub-sectors, so don’t hold back!