One of my favorite workplace culture definitions comes from toolbox.com. This HR organization defines workplace culture as:
“……the cumulative effect that leadership practices, employee behavior, workplace amenities, and organizational policies create on a worker/internal stakeholder. It can be measured as either positive or negative work culture.”
What is very interesting in workplace culture is that polices can be active/visible like the list of core values the organization defines or passive/invisible like workplace social norms that affect how people are viewed in the organization. These passive/invisible yet tangible norms create perception, the unspoken rule that can drive success or stagnation in careers and company development.
Let me be clear- I believe that every company culture is ultimately controlled not by the values it holds but how those values are embodied by the employees and then how those employees are perceived by the leadership of said organization. There is no culture without perception and for individuals in these ecosystems, there is no career trajectory that is unaffected by perception.
Consider this: We have all known that one person (or several) that seem to have that golden ticket. Nothing they do is wrong. They float to the top of the corporate ladder in what seems an effortless way and yet you can see how that person is not perfect. They are perceived as having the “ability” of being more successful even when there are others of similar skillset not moving as fast in their career track. You may have equated this to likeability, or looked at it as that person functioning in a company blind spot where their opportunities are missed. Heck, you may have voiced concerns and been told that you are out of line because no one else sees what you see. What’s really happening is that individual is managing his or her perception within the company norms in a way that is efficient, effective and creates the right feelings around them to generate success.
So how do we get good at the “perception game”? Does this conflict with being yourself at work? The answer to these questions is not simple. Yes, you need to be aware of perceptions and how your workplace places value in perception. You also need to make a decision: Do you want to “trust the system” and play to how best be perceived to get where you want to be in the organization or do you want to manage how you are perceived while staying true to yourself? Do you want to push against perceptions to create a new norm? I will tell you neither answer is wrong. It is a choice. You can have a balance of being yourself and setting boundaries of how much a culture influences you. Just do it with eyes wide open. Perceptions eb and flow so don’t think that this work is ever over. What you don’t want to do is loose yourself in the perception game. Since perception is fluid, you may be high on the perception “meter” one day and falling like a rock the next day. If your work life is all about the perception game you are in fact playing Russian roulette. The perception game is not sustainable. You can actually see this in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion movement. There is a big push on being your whole self at work and cultures are being tested to be more accepting and inclusive of people that do not fit the “perception” mold. The square peg, round hole philosophy is no longer working. Organizations are moving to redefine what positive and negative perceptions are.
Here’s what I think. At this point, with the flux happening across industries, it is a great time if you are someone that wants to showcase your work and your personality without compromising either. We are in a time where asking “why not me” is more important than trusting the system. The system is changing. Be part of that change.
So, where are you on this? Are you standing in your truth and owning any perceptions, are you shifting to meet perceptions or somewhere in the middle?