Culture Shock

May 31, 2017

In my last blog post, I wrote about the lessons I learned during my mission trip to the Philippines. The following weekend, I shared the lessons I wrote about including my feelings of being a stranger with our church group. Afterwards, one of the ladies approached me, and told me that I was experiencing culture shock – or almost a reversal of it because of my situation. The more I thought about it, it became obvious she was correct. And it occurred to me that perhaps, culture shock is also what is experienced in organizations as a result of culture change.

Recently, I have been applying years of learned experiences and my knowledge of culture change to my current responsibilities at Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command (NCDOC), leading different culture shaping initiatives. We began this process just over 18 months ago. I share our New Teammate Handbook (click on link) that illustrates the hard work we have been doing on creating the kind of culture we desire and deserve. Our hope is that this just one way in which we help attract and recruit the type of teammates we need.

As you read through our handbook, keep in mind that we are a military command made up of sailors, government civilians and contractors. I say this because after recent discussions with people from other commands and organizations, there are very few, especially military, who take deliberate action to shape their culture. And the question I get from most people is, “how do you change something like culture?” It does sound quite daunting. And it isn’t easy, but the answer is simple: “You change it by creating the culture you want.”

Language, Environment, and Behavior

Language is fundamental to culture since its the means to communicate the vision and the decisions along the way. Articulate clearly why culture matters even if it might seem obvious. Many don’t make the connection. For example, when CEOs or COs started using language like “meaningful work”, “trust”, and “building relationships” most people look at them as if they’re speaking Greek [or insert a foreign language]. And in a sense, they are. People know their literal meanings, but unfortunately, these terms are not part of workplace vernacular and so it doesn’t become part of the how they do their work. Many might even feel that these are just too touchy feely and it simply has no place at work, especially in the military.

Additionally, visible outcomes and results are significant to shaping culture throughout the process. Make it obscenely visible! Use all forms of communication to demonstrate what you are doing – from bulletin boards to whatever media forums you have in-house and social media. Leverage the physical spaces throughout the organization because the more often people visibly see progress, it will become obvious that the words are more than talk whether they agree with it or not. What they see is that ideas lead to action, and action delivers outcomes. And many do see the value added.

I won’t lie, shaping culture is messy and chaotic especially when disrupting mental models of those whose modus operandi only do what they are told, or they cannot think beyond the possible. Granted, they’ve had years, maybe decades, of operating this way, so they have no idea what to do.  So this disruption causes dissension and frustration amongst leadership across all levels and even amongst those in the trenches. Disruption forces people to change their traditional ways of thinking and doing, and for some, it is a complete shock to their system and a shock to the organization. Some may leave altogether, and for others, it may cause them to go into defensive mode, resisting or disengaging from various efforts or change simply because they are satisfied with their work. Thus far, it’s been good enough.

Eventually the shock to the system dissipates, the culture progresses as those leading the charge continue making improvements. Eventually the changes created become normalized and the culture stabilizes. But this takes time (I can’t stress this enough).

The Paradox of Time

Time is the reason why culture shock occurs as organizations make changes to the way they do business. The more immediate the change, the more shock is experienced. However, shock to a system isn’t necessarily a bad thing – in fact, shock is the single most effective way to change immediate behavior. And sometimes it is necessary.

The lack of time is the reason why impatience increases among leaders doing the creating and shaping, particularly for those who have term limits. It always seems more time is needed as things are just getting started. Therefore, we want progress to occur faster but it seems like we are moving at a snail’s pace, or moving so slow we might actually be going backwards in some cases. And it becomes very frustrating despite knowing that culture is a long process. But there is no ending to organizational culture, it continues to develop and evolve even through staff or leadership turnover.

Finally, it is only through the passing of time when we see cultural progress and can truly appreciate all the improvements and the hard work that’s been done. For those leading the charge, this kind of time can’t come soon enough. But it takes time for language, mindsets, and behaviors to develop and grow. Thus, it is time that determines when culture has evolved to when the changes that we created simply become part of everyday business.

Leading With Passion and Compassion

I’ve had the privilege of leading with and learning some great lessons on shaping culture with my command leadership. Leaders with the passion for progress and change must have as much compassion towards those experiencing shock. We understand that doing and creating anything bold is hard work and we know first hand the struggles and challenges. Yet, we continue learning to persist and to lead with passion and compassion through all of our highs and lows. We haven’t always got it right, even failing miserably on some attempts, but we have had some great successes as demonstrated in our handbook. The impact of the culture we’ve been creating continues to be and will remain significant over time, as work becomes even more meaningful and valuable to those on our team.

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4 thoughts on “Culture Shock

  1. Rebecca,

    Excellent work. You have clearly described the mechanisms, forces and dynamics involved in creating change. Only a person in the unique position you’re in, between the leaders and the workforce, can provide such valuable perspective on culture, shaping the environment and organizational change.


  2. The primary responsibility of a leader is to shape the environment and incentivize behavior across the team. Creating from the beginning is optimal, but we aren’t fortunate enough to do that. The next best alternative is to change it and few are persistent enough or properly equipped to see that through. You ought to be proud of the wake you are creating and the course we are on. Well done!


  3. I identify, Becca, I had culture shock going back to the Philippines at age 15 after 13 years in Iran!


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