“Culture is a collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.” source

Culture is a beautiful thing. It speaks to one’s roots and identity. It speaks “to the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.” If one wants to be a tad more intellectual about subject, “culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.” I love and respect my own and other cultures.

But what happens when your culture becomes the main impediment to your development in the workplace? After all, with the advent of the global village, it’s a luxury to work in a place that shares your exact culture.

The culture you are raised in grooms you to apply certain language, communication and behavioural filters to yourself each time you express yourself. Here are a couple of easy examples from my own culture.

  • Be humble – Humility includes not announcing your own success; celebrating yourself or displaying your achievements. A certain level of self-deprecation is generally expected.

Allow me to illustrate this with a simple, actual example from my childhood. During my O Level holidays (soon after writing the national exams one gets delightfully long school holiday while they wait for their results), I was doing my mum’s hair while I slowly mulled over what my results might be. I was specifically thinking about my English language exam. I knew I had written an excellent essay. I was very good at the subject. I had never gotten anything but an A or a first for English Language in my entire academic life. My biggest worry was, in order to write my story (aka composition) in full, I had exceeded the word limit by 2 paragraphs. I was concerned I would be penalised by the examiner so I casually said to my mum, “I am really worried I wont get an A for my English exam because my essay was too long.” The response was a soft spoken but disapproving, “who told you you would get an A in the first place.”

“No-one” I stammered. “I just thought I wrote very well except for the length.”

“Be that as it may, you can’t tell people that you think you got an A.” It was said very firmly and it was final. The question of my possible grade was never discussed again. Not even when the results were released and I, in fact, got a distinction for English Language.

I listened to my mum, my aunts, my teacher and the community in general. I adopted the accepted the cultural definition and filter of “humility.”

  • Respect your elders – This one is self explanatory. One is taught to respect their elders without question, even when they are wrong. One must never contradict or correct or inadvertently embarrass an older person in general and especially not in public.

Such characteristics would and will still get you very far in any community that subscribes to my culture.

A decade later, I find myself building my career in the corporate boardroom. I am always the youngest person at my level in the boardroom. It is a place where this kind of humility and respect for elders could be a fatal flaw. A place where failing to take credit for your achievement means someone else will take it…shamelessly. A place where you either step up or step out.

I remember my first real realisation that this kind of humility would limit my career. A much older colleague, who is at a slightly lower seniority level than I am, a director and I met with a strategist to see if his vision matched ours. After the meeting, the director walked the strategist out to the parking lot. While he was out, my colleague asked me what my thoughts on the strategist had been. I pointed out that there are spelling mistakes on his website (he asked me to show him), that he has not researched our company at all (now that you mention it…he said), that certain key elements we had requested were missing from his brief (which ones, he asked… I told him).  When the director walked back in and asked what we thought, my colleague didn’t skip a beat as he relayed my views as his own almost verbatim. I didn’t say a word. I couldn’t say a word. Not even when he told the exact same joke I had told him in telling him my view. The strategist had inexplicably written “anus” on the flip-board during his presentation. No-one else had noticed at the time.

I sat stewing in a brine of respecting my elders (I couldn’t humiliate a person so much older than me) and being humble (ultimately I had noticed those things and it didn’t matter if anyone else knew, right?). And of course I had very little to say in addition when the director turned to me and asked, “Chuwe, what did you think?”

I was livid with myself afterwards. Even more so when I still managed to fall into a similar trap 3 or 4 times before learning my lesson.

This is just one example of many. I can’t even begin to mention the times when I have had to discipline, correct or do a performance reviews on people decades older than me and with far more experience. The first few times, I thought I would literally combust. I was so completely and unjustifiably mortified.

Behaviour learnt over a lifetime is difficult to let go of or change.

You see, the trouble with the workplace is diversity. My cultural norms are not those of the person in the next cubicle or in the next office or on the upper floor. My idea of what is honourable and right may not be theirs. My idea of where the line between confidence and arrogance is may differ significantly from theirs. My definition of strong and weak may be nothing like theirs. Their filters are not my filters. But it is these very people that I must work with on a daily basis. They are the people who have to respect my knowledge on certain subjects. They are the people who decide whether to promote me or give me a raise. They are the ones I can not afford not to impress. The magic trick is learning to balance my cultural norms with the characteristics that will allow me to advance in the workplace.

I had to consciously make the decision to start taking verbal credit for my work. I had to learn to start immediately calling out colleagues who tried to use me to get ahead (Do this once or twice and you will never have to do it again. Playground bullies and boardroom bullies are no different). I had to realise that I have to embrace my authority and learn to wield it gracefuIly instead of shying away from it because someone else will pick it up and use it for me.  Above all, I had to learn to be completely unapologetic about what I am knowledgeable about. The difference in the way my colleagues now treat me and defer to my opinion tells me that I am on the right track. What they don’t know is how much conscious effort it still takes me to bypass my many deeply ingrained filters. Maybe in a few years all this will come more naturally. It’s a continual learning process.