Lurking in the Shadows
In my previous post, the issue was raised about people not staying around an employer long enough to learn the ins and outs of office politics, corporate culture, and teamwork. Telling these people to "slow down and stick it out" probably won't solve the problem, as company loyalty is no longer valued as strongly as it once was. As a consultant, I've had to become very sensitive to the "quick ramp up" issue also, as every few months brings about a new project, a new team, a new department, and a new company.
When I taught the MBA class on Creativity in Business last fall, John agreed to come and be one of my guest speakers. John is not an artist (at least not in the pure sense of the word), nor is he being written up in magazines for entrepreneurial brilliance (although he possesses it). John is a police investigator. He was the chief investigator for one of central Iowa's most brutal and notorial serial killer cases ever (and yes, he got his man put behind bars). In twelve years of teaching, John is the only guest speaker who's kept my class (and me) captivated for 100 minutes straight... no breaks. In listening to him speak about how he cracked the case, I learned a few things about ramping up quickly in a new (and sometimes hostile) environment. We'll call them the ABCs of Acclimation.
Atmosphere - the serial killer's second victim was John's first introduction to his new case. He described how - when he first arrived at the scene - he sat in the doorway of the hotel room where the body was found. For 45 minutes, all he did was sit and observe. And how that initial, quiet observation yielded many clues that became vital in cracking the case. When some people arrive in a new environment, they start off like a bulldozer in heat, making a very loud first impression. Sometimes, it's important to just quietly observe the atmosphere. Who appears to have the power in the office? Who talks with whom? What is the anxiety level? Are people collaborative or individualistic? Surveying the landscape before you engage can mean the difference between successful and unsuccessful political maneuvering later.
Behavior - Because John came into the investigation in the middle, there were other police officers who were already vested in the case, and were not thrilled that he was involved. One other thing about John that you must know is that he is a master interrogator. His questions are directed with laser-accuracy and each one carries the informational weight of an atomic bomb. Through asking a few simple questions, he could easily determine which police officers would be the most challenging. When arriving into a new department or new company, it's always wise to ask more questions of people than you tell them information. "How long have you worked in the department?" and "What are some things you wish you'd known on your first day?" can be helpful at obtaining information about the person with whom you are talking and also about others in the department. Another key factor is body language. Eye contact, folded arms and legs, body posturing, and proximity all carry information about other people. Use this information wisely.
Carrots - OK, this one is a stretch, but everybody is motivated by something (whether they admit it or not). In John's case, he mentioned that every serial killer is motivated to act by some trigger, a person or an event which pushes them to kill. Every serial killer also generally leaves some kind of calling card, generally motivated by ego, a signal that says, "Yeah, this was me again... I did it and got away with it." Those two points of motivation led him eventually to the killer. While we may not have serial killers lurking in our corporate hallways, people's actions are motivated by something buried deep in their value systems (ask Mel Gibson about that, given his recent DUI rantings). Additionally, people also leave their calling cards - their personal brands - on almost every transaction. Knowing these motivations can provide much needed information when you are quickly trying to learn the ropes of a department or a company.
Differentiation - John showed my class actual crime scene photos and then asked the class what they saw. The students would answer through their perceptual filters, ascribing more to the photo than what was actually there. In a fit of pure passion, John would yell, "No! You're making assumptions! When I assume things, killers go free and innocent people die. Now... again... what do you SEE???" In a little over an hour and a half, he taught them the most valuable lesson of all: differentiating fact from assumption. We do that a lot in our professional exchanges, don't we? We think we see something based on our perceptual filters, when actually we're just making assumptions. Try people watching at a mall or airport sometime and make a note of what facts you can observe about a person first... then try to figure out what logical assumptions can be drawn based on those facts. The results might surprise you.
While there is no substitute for the investment of time to build relationships and cultivate trust and learn the environment, if you absolutely must ramp up quickly on corporate culture and office politics, lessons from a serial killer investigator can help you move more nimbly at acclimating yourself into a new workplace.