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Joining a new company has elements of a mystery. Each organization has a unique culture. But it can take detective work to uncover how best to act in your new situation.

To help with your sleuthing, Allan Church, senior vice-president of global talent assessment and development at PepsiCo Inc., and Jay Conger, a professor of leadership studies at Claremont McKenna College, suggest on Harvard Business Review Blogs paying attention to these five clues:

1. Relationships

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Organizations differ in how relationships are cultivated, notably on how much collaboration is valued and how much face time is expected to get work done. “In some organizations, the only way to influence others is by spending time with them in person. In others, e-mailing, texting, and video conferencing are preferred over in-person meetings,” they note. Ask your new colleagues how you should approach relationships – for example, do you need to spend time building a relationship with someone before asking them for help or input on a project – and watch how others get work done and make decisions. Is it a place where much of the time is spent meeting with each other or do people tend to work alone at their desks or at home?

2. Communication

Study how people communicate with each other. A big factor can be whether they prefer formal channels, such as meetings set up in advance to which everyone comes prepared, or informal, spontaneous communication with little or no documentation. How do hierarchical norms affect communication? Can you e-mail or chat with anyone, or is pre-clearance necessary with higher rungs? And finally how is information presented, particularly the packaging expected for meetings.

3. Decision-making

In some organizations, decisions are made at meetings while in others there may be discussion and apparent decisions in meetings but in reality the final determination comes outside the meeting. “Watch for whether the decisions made in the meetings get implemented. If you see people agreeing to some set of actions in a meeting, and then notice that other things happen afterward, that suggests there are strong informal decision-making mechanisms at play that you’ll need to uncover,” they note. Often that means you have to court approval from a few pivotal players before or after the session. They also suggest you determine if the organization has a bias for action or a bias for analysis and consensus.

4. Individual vs. Group

Is individualism or collaboration prized more? “If an organization is very individualistic in its approach, it will generally support a ‘hero mentality’ that recognizes the ambitious individual. Rewards are often individually based, and performance management tends to be based on individual ratings where everyone’s unique contribution is justified to their peers. Group-focused organizations provide more of a safety net in that risks and rewards are shared, but it may be harder to stand out as an individual and differentiate yourself,” they write. One way this can play out: If people generally talk about the group achievements while you use “I” in your presentations, you will be viewed as not a team player

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5. Change agents

They warn that most organizations are resistant to outsiders aiming at change, even when promised they have a mandate to shake things up. The result: They fail. Don’t let that happen to you. Pay attention to pacing and buy-in. “You need to ask: Can I be a highly assertive, fast-paced champion of change, or do I need to invest in engagement, dialogue, and consensus building first? Nobody will answer these questions for you – you need to figure it out by watching reactions to the initial recommendations you make,” they advise.

Culture can be soft and amorphous, difficult to discern. This approach offers specific details to pay attention to – clues to solve a mystery that can have dangerous consequences if you don’t get it right.

Where is my most productive work environment?

Freelance writer Ieva Baranova set out over a month to determine the best work space in terms of productivity, creativity and personal satisfaction. She used a time-tracking app to study periods at her computer, charting how much time was wasted on websites and apps extraneous to her content-marketing assignments. Each week, she spent one day at home, one day at the office and one day at a coffee shop. Here’s her report for TheLadders.com:

The Office: She found this led, as might be expected, to more socializing in discussions with colleagues and clients. At the same time, teamwork and meetings are an essential part of the work, so the unproductive hours the time tracker tallied – when she was not active on productive apps – weren’t necessarily unproductive. She calculates productivity at 85 per cent and rates the office as a four out of five for personal satisfaction, “with peaks of productivity and deep trenches of distraction,” as she puts it.

Coffee shop: She found this ambiance boosted creativity. There was background noise, of course, but she was there to work, didn’t take breaks and “felt a fresh wave of inspiration as I was writing in this unfamiliar place − new ideas kept flowing in, and my work motivation was high.” But there was something uncomfortable about working in a public space and it’s not cheap to spend the day in a coffee shop. Rating: 87 per cent for productivity but only two for personal satisfaction.

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Home office: This surprised her in how productive a work space it was, particularly for long tasks. The time tracker showed more consecutive sessions of focused work. “The few breaks I took were more efficient and satisfying. I only decided to take breaks when I was tired or felt stuck with a task, not when I was interrupted at work by other colleagues asking me something. Furthermore, I spent the breaks away from the computer, doing a small house chore, like washing the dishes,” she notes. This ended with the highest score: 91 per cent for productivity and five out of five for satisfaction.

She stresses this is personal, her approach for her line of work. And she adds: “Personally, I believe that the secret sauce is being able to change your work location sometimes − especially if your profession is a creative one. No wonder successful companies design their offices as hybrid spaces with many alternative workplace to your desk.”

The four laws of strength and weakness

Many careers sink on fatal flaws, even when the individual has great strengths. Here are four laws to ponder on strength and weakness, courtesy of leadership trainer and blogger Dan Rockwell:

  • Those who think they’re strong where they’re weak end up failing.
  • All strengths have corresponding weaknesses.
  • The more remarkable you are in one area, the less remarkable you are in another.
  • There are exceptions to the laws of strength and weakness but you aren’t one.

Quick hits

  • Leadership consultant Bill Benjamin says in challenging conversations we tend to adequately cover the first 92 per cent of what we intend to discuss but then avoid the last 8 per cent – the most crucial part – as the other person reacts emotionally. Before starting the conversation, be very clear to yourself about the last 8 per cent and ensure you say it, however the other person reacts.
  • Your team doesn’t care if you are a superstar. They care if you are a super team member, says author and speaker Jon Gordon.
  • Sushi may be tasty but so-called sushi pricing – where the customer pays a separate price for every bite – is usually unpalatable. That’s why you should look at a single, relatively attractive price for consumption such as a fixed monthly price for streaming any number of movies and songs, says neuroscience blogger Roger Dooley.
  • Beware of the desire for brutal honesty, warns consultant Justin Hale. Keep in mind that your beliefs are not the same as ultimate truths, and share your opinions as opinions, not facts.
  • If you want the Microsoft ribbon to be bigger, try right-clicking on your desktop in Windows 10 and then choose the display settings option of the context menu that pops up. You will be offered a Scale and Layout option in the window that opens allowing you to increase magnification for your ribbon and other things displayed on your screen, Word expert Allen Wyatt explains.
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