The Mentorist

Read the Smoke Signals: Understanding Your Company’s Culture


Companies are tribes. Firms are too.

Yet, many of us walk into work each day oblivious to the subtle tribal customs and communications going on around us. We assume we know who’s in power, who’s in favor and what it takes to reach either status.

Of course, every group – including your current workplace — has some basic similarities to other groups. But every group also has nuances specific to it alone.

The people who pick up on those workplace nuances are the ones who get included in the “lively banter” before meetings, get adopted as protégés and get more kudos than their actual work might merit.

So, what if that last sentence doesn’t describe you? You can change that – but, first, you need to do some field research.

Begin by adopting the mindset of a cultural anthropologist: Drop your preconceived notions of how things “should” be and purely observe what’s going on around you.

Imagine that the people in your company or firm are a foreign tribe. Your task is to figure out four fundamentals about the tribe’s culture. You need to understand its:

  • Power structure — both formal and informal
  • Internal alliances — and rivalries
  • Communications style
  • Behaviors that are rewarded — and punished

Once you assume the anthropologist’s role of detached observer, you’ll be surprised how much will be revealed about your company’s four fundamentals. So, leave your value judgments at the door. Your role is simply to watch, listen and (mentally) record.

Now that you’re in the right mindset, spend the next two weeks observing the following:

  • When you walk into a work meeting, where is the person with the highest formal (i.e., org chart) title seated?
  • Who’s sitting next to him/her?
  • How are people dressed – and how similarly?
  • What are they talking about before the meeting begins (the “banter,” in other words)?
  • How is humor being used – or is it?
  • Once the meeting starts, how does information get exchanged?
  • Who (if anyone) challenges it and how?
  • Who do people look at when they’re speaking?
  • What expressions are appearing on the (formal) leader’s face?

At the end of the two weeks, you will have collected a wealth of data. Viewed as a whole, it will begin to reveal the four fundamentals of your company’s culture.

But don’t do this field-research exercise just once. (Cultures are organic and morph over time.) Make a habit of it. Soon, it will become second nature.

Once you understand how your company’s culture works, you can act in ways that will help you “fit” within it. And just as important: You can consciously stand apart from that culture in ways that get positive recognition.

In the words of Yogi Berra, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

office politics

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

4 thoughts on “Read the Smoke Signals: Understanding Your Company’s Culture

  1. Pingback: Can’t Take My Eyes Off You: Dressing for the Office | The Mentorist

  2. If my problem was a Death Star, this article is a photon torpedo.

  3. Heck yeah this is exactly what I needed.

  4. That’s an expert answer to an interesting question

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s