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Going Native: When New, Smart Staff Join The Cult(ure)

You’ve seen this movie dozens of times. There is an opening for a key position in your company and a small group of decision makers get together to discuss what they are looking for in a new hire. “Someone with unique skills so we can upgrade the role.” “Someone from the outside for a fresh set of eyes on the situation.” “Someone who can support a culture change.” “Someone who won’t be sucked into the morass around here. Someone who is tougher than all the crazy.” Such high hopes. Such unrealistic expectations.

Human beings are pack animals. We require connection. Drop a new person into the middle of a herd and it will be the herd that changes the spots of the loner, not the other way around. In short order the new member will act, talk and think like the natives. Even if New One retains some individual identity and separateness, the gravitational pull to the pack will be powerful to resist. In time those who hired New One are disappointed, New One is frustrated but the herd is absolutely ecstatic.

So does our nature make this transformation inevitable? Probably. But if we are trying to break down these internal cults(ures) how can bringing in new people minimize this phenomenon? It’s a reasonable strategy, a rational idea and one that is used repeatedly. So how can we make this work well enough?

  • Deeply understand your context. We can all sit around and bitch about this person and that department and the “off the reservation” sub-group but this is utterly unproductive. It does not take a 360 view of the work environment: where are the structural roadblocks, what has set off intra-group friction, what is the long term damage from keeping ineffective leaders and staff in their roles, what behaviors have gone unchecked for ages. In other words, what is the soup everyone is swimming in? Venting about this or that is not the same as a cold hard look at all the contributing factors to the negative forces in the culture.
  • Culture change is a team sport that starts at the top. To expect a new hire (even at the executive level) to perform a miracle that hasn’t already occurred is just plain cra-cra. Although some of us disguise ourselves as super heroes, that is just make believe. It is up to the CEO and executive team to determine what the culture needs to be and then demonstrate that consistently every day. No New One can create this kind of change. I have written about this many times here before so I won’t belabor the point again.
  • Cult members have to be taken to the woodshed. Bit by bit, person by person, the leaders have to engage every bad player in some serious conversations. These negative forces have been allowed to flourish because of denial, the heavy lifting involved, the potential (but short term) backlash and hoping it will just resolve on its own. New One is not the right person for this task. The leaders need to try deprogramming cult members, reprogramming them or showing them the door. The ringleaders usually need to exit first and then it becomes more apparent how devoted or brainwashed the followers are. Devotees will take up the banner and fill the leadership void, still believing in the cause. They will need to go too. It is the brainwashed that can be reformed but it is unlikely they will ever perform up to full capacity. They have lost their safe zone and will be viewed as damaged goods. Long story short (this weeding out can take months or years), current leaders must root out the stinkers before bringing New One on board.
  • Set the stage for success. If the current leadership takes the actions suggested above and sends the message to the organization that it is a new day, the next steps are about creating a receptivity for the New One. This goes way beyond onboarding (whatever the hell that means these days!). I’m talking about a series of group and individual communications over several months from the executives actively recruiting staff to participate in the new, next chapter of the organization’s growth. It is not about New One; it is about existing staff engaging in the future direction. It is making some internal staff changes including new roles and new teams and new energy. When New One arrives on the scene s/he is met with curiosity and cautious optimism rather than bait as a new cult recruit.

This is not a perfect recipe but it will mitigate the overwhelming power and urge to go native. It is easier to blend in and go with the flow rather than to swim upstream. There is some comfort and camaraderie in the herd and New One will feel welcomed and less isolated. This makes it possible to be lulled into the group’s perspective on the “way things ought to be run around here”. Those that hired New One wonder how such a smart, forward thinking person could get so stupid so fast. It is not stupidity. It is just being human.

Leaders and well intentioned colleagues: help New One navigate the landscape by clearing out the weeds, bad apples and boulders. Get external consulting help to have that brutally honest look at how messed up things are before thinking there is some caped crusader who can save the day.



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