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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2011

School-Smart but Culture-Dumb
Paul Hettich, PhD, DePaul University (IL)

It is not unusual for managers to characterize many recent college graduates as very bright but socially unskilled and ignorant of corporate culture. Just as you discerned important differences between high school and college (or between colleges if you transferred) and behaved differently, you must do the same, quickly, in your new organization’s culture. Organizational culture "refers to the shared meaning, interpretations, and understanding of various organizational events among organizational members” and serves as a guide for how to behave (Dickson and Mitchelson, 2006).

For example, Jerry was bright and articulate during the job interview. Soon after he was hired, however, he let his hair grow longer than acceptable, developed negative attitudes toward his assignments, and decided to become his own man. At a pretrade show event, he showed up unshaven and with dirty hair; during the show, he decided to check his Facebook account on an off-limits association computer and thought nothing of his behavior. Mara grew up in an international culture very different from America and began her first real job with limited work experience and different cultural filters. After a corporate VP spoke to employees, she followed him into his office and said he had done everything correct according to the textbooks. Instead of accepting her remarks as a compliment, the VP felt she had talked down to him. The VP then directed her supervisor (in Tony Soprano language) to take disciplinary action. The supervisor persuaded the VP to take a less formal route to increase her awareness of workplace dynamics, but it was a very embarrassing experience for her. (The lesson: If you have knowledge from coursework to communicate, wait until you know your supervisor and the company culture very well before you share it). Soon after Erik was hired, he was invited by his supervisor for coffee with his coworkers. Erik refused the invitation without stating a reason. On other occasions, when Erik and his coworkers were invited for cocktails or similar events, he refused, again without explanations. In general, he showed in various ways that he did not want to be part of his group that included his supervisor and his coworkers.

Each individual was a bright, recent college graduate with a high GPA, but each lacked the basic social intelligence and sensitivity required to succeed in a particular work setting. In short, each was "school-smart but culture-dumb.” And, as an aside, their supervisors observed that each individual communicated primarily by e-mail, not face-to-face, even when situations demanded personal communication. As it turns out, Jerry failed to adapt to his environment, and his position was ultimately eliminated. Mara was assigned readings about workplace dynamics, discussed them with her supervisor, and gradually acquired the perceptual filters she needed to succeed. Erik was transferred to another department and assigned a role he could perform satisfactorily. College generally does not teach you about such situations (nor is such instruction part of its mission).

How can new hires avoid the kinds of problems these college grads created for themselves? "Always challenge your past assumptions of acceptable behavior and communications rules when you enter a new organization; look for clues of how successful people interact with others. Early on, test your assumptions daily,” advises Steve Salzman. As Marketing Director of Specialty Pharmacy at CVS–Caremark, Salzman is responsible for marketing strategy and implementation for 30+ rare and chronic specialty pharmacy therapy classes, in addition to working with clinicians and sales to develop strategically based programs. Salzman has seen some new college graduates adapt, but he knows many who made serious mistakes because they were "culture-dumb.” Salzman also encourages new hires to seek a mentor, a respected and experienced individual from another department who is willing to advise the new hire in professional development.

Salzman compares organizational acculturation to learning new rules. He describes an assimilation training event in which participants were seated in groups of six to eight at one of ten numbered tables. Each participant was dealt a hand of cards and provided written rules of how the game was to be played. Rules were collected from all tables before the start of the hand. The task was to win the game within a preestablished time period, but nonverbally—no talking. Winners advanced to the next higher numbered table and losers moved to a lower table. Players moving to a new table soon learned that the rules for the table were significantly different from the one they just left. As there was no talking, the clues indicating they were not playing by the rules were completely nonverbal. The training exercise is analogous to learning an organization’s culture without verbal direction: The different tables represented various departments in the company, and the cards were the organization’s common objectives. Those who mastered the unspoken rules of a department moved up in the organization where they faced the challenge of mastering different rules.

Although research on organizational culture has produced a significant literature, I located only one study that surveyed graduates regarding differences between college and the workplace (Holton, 1998). Holton’s study is over a decade old, but the dimensions remain current. Consider discussing Table 1 at your next Psi Chi alumni career event. Salzman believes that for his organization the most important dimensions of Table 1 are numbers 1, 6, and 9 (Other managers I know would agree). Why are these dimensions important? College: a) conditions you to expect frequent and specific feedback from your instructors; b) permits you to participate passively in much of the learning process; and c) is designed to focus your energies on your personal development. In short, college has counter-trained you for certain aspects of the workplace. In addition to these 16 comparisons, Salzman identified two others that distinguish college from the workplace. First, acting professionally in all matters on a day-today basis in college is generally unnecessary, but in the workplace, professional behavior is expected at all times. Second, time management is generally more critical in the workplace, where punctuality is essential and employees regularly work under short deadlines.

Additional Recommendations

  1. If you have a job, record in a journal for a couple weeks the explicit and subtle aspects of your company’s organizational culture, such as patterns of acceptable and unacceptable modes of interpersonal communications, your company’s values, and its expectations regarding punctuality, work ethic, dress code, and attitudes. Which aspects of the culture do you identify with? Which do you reject? If you have never held a part-time job, get one before you graduate.
  2. Complete at least one internship, preferably in a nonacademic setting. Get involved with volunteer work and other activities, giving special attention to the organization’s beliefs, values, and practices.
  3. Extra curricular activities occur within your school’s organizational culture, but active participation is an excellent way to develop interpersonal skills, learn to interact in ambiguous circumstances, and develop awareness of culture. Follow these recommendations, and you may improve your chances of beginning your next job not only school-smart but also cultureconscious.

Dickson, M. W., & Mitchelson, J. K. (2006). Organizational culture. In S. G. Rogelberg (Ed), Encyclopedia of industrial organizational psychology (pp. 558-562). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Holton, E. F., III. (1998). Preparing students for life beyond the classroom. In J.N. Gardner, G Van der Veer and Associates. The senior year experience (pp. 95-115). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Paul Hettich, PhD, Professor Emeritus at DePaul University (IL), was an Army personnel psychologist, program evaluator in an education R&D lab, and a corporate applied scientist—positions that created a "real world” foundation for his career in college teaching and administration. He was inspired to write about college-to-workplace readiness issues by graduates and employers who revealed a major disconnect between university and workplace expectations, cultures, and practices.

Copyright 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 4) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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