Understanding Unconscious Norms – Mastering the Ability to Thrive in Any Ecosystem Understanding Unconscious Norms – Mastering the Ability to Thrive in Any Ecosystem

How do successful African-American leaders thrive? How have they realized the highest pinnacles of accomplishment throughout the course of their careers? These individuals have learned how to quickly read and adapt to the cultural norms of the workplace. Norms are regarded as typical acceptable behaviors in any society or community. We propose that unconscious norms are the unwritten rules regarding style, dress, manner, authority structures and interests that may determine an individual’s acceptance into a community or ecosystem. In a business setting, playing by the unwritten rules may have significant bearing on a person’s ability to succeed.

It starts with learning how the ecosystem behaves
In her book, “Strategize to Win,” Carla Harris suggests that you have to be a master of understanding your environment. She advises that you spend a minimum of two weeks observing the cultural cues. What makes this intricate and complex is that the ecosystem may expand beyond the office.

Be inquisitive. Consider asking these simple questions to help you master an understanding of the ecosystem:

• How do people communicate with one another? 
• How is language used? Are they polite or argumentative?
• Where do people lunch?
• Do they spend their personal time together?
• Do they go home after work or to a local watering hole?
• Do they participate in sports activities or initiate philanthropic interests?
• What is the uniform or dress code?
• Who are the decision makers? Who are the influencers?

It’s important to observe before you can effectively engage. Walmart’s Chief Diversity Officer, Ben Hasan, says, “The major issue is that it is unconscious. Formal education alone does not prepare one to successfully thrive in any environment. You have to become a student all over again – a student of culture. It is important to take the time and make the investment in knowing your environment. I believe being your authentic self is a quest for self-discovery – it is deeper than how you look or what you wear.”

So…is being your authentic self misguided advice?

We have often received and given advice to be our authentic selves. But what does being your authentic self mean? Many environments don’t invite authentically sharing really personal elements until you’ve proven yourself by doing excellent work. Marvin O’Quinn, Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for Dignity Health, explains that you can’t stop being who you are. “You need to learn how to function in the new environment. You must put yourself out there, engage with people, network and have friends. Be who you are. Be professional. Every individual has intrinsic value.” Mr. O’Quinn made it his personal goal to seek out the difficult assignments. When asked if he had the wherewithal to do a job, he’d say yes, then perform research and work diligently. He advanced past others who would turn down challenging tasks. He also volunteered to help peers complete their efforts. It helped make him stand out as a person who could get things done.

Michael Fucci, Chairman, Deloitte LLP shares, “I’ve shied away from using the term ‘authentic self’. I believe you have to bring your courageous self to work.” To effectively engage and perform, you have to have a 360-degree view of your environment. If you jump in without considering all of the parameters, your intentions may be misinterpreted. With the right sponsorship and a careful balance of promoting diversity, being courageous and respecting the norms; you can achieve success.”

Conforming vs. Compromising

While it is important not to compromise your true values, and regardless of the desire to be your authentic self, some conforming may be necessary to be accepted by a team. Recognize that over time your courage and authenticity will transform as you learn from others and adopt successful behaviors and strategies. If you want to be embraced for who you are, you’ll likely need to appreciate others. What level of conformity is necessary? Realize it was a choice to work in the organization. Therefore, you should learn how to integrate. You will always be a part of some ecosystem or community. You will likely need to determine what it takes to fit in. Besides fitting in, how will you bring new and important dimensions that benefit your team? Once you’ve gained awareness of your new environment, you can then make a personal decision regarding the degree to which you are willing to adapt.

As Shelley Stewart, Chief Procurement Officer of DuPont, shares, “I had common interests and experiences such as skiing, hunting and fishing that allowed me to have a starting point. Having common interests allows for establishing a common ground. Although, it is easier to overcome perceived biases, that alone is not enough. You have to concurrently be credible and relevant. This will help you get a ticket into the club. You can’t be effective as an outsider.” Mr. Stewart goes on to suggest that you can’t force individuals to be inclusive, but you can model desired behavior. “I demonstrated performance and effectiveness first, became a role model, then demonstrated diversity and inclusion through my actions and results.”

Thriving: the roadmap to success

As we explored the concept of unconscious norms with these esteemed leaders, we realized consistent themes in the perspectives they shared.

Observe and absorb. Constantly monitor the pulse of the environment, stay in tune with the ecosystem. Model behavior and emulate leadership styles that you admire. Don’t adopt a behavior that is against your core values. It is not inauthentic to grow. Conscious conformity means evolution and evolution means growth.

Empower yourself to fit in. Understand how your colleagues spend their time socially. For example, learn about wine, experience golf, and try skiing. To engage, shift the conversation and participate by asking questions about the subject to the experts in the setting. Philanthropic endeavors are another way to develop leadership skills, demonstrate core values and establish relationships with others in your organization or community.

Be a student of power. Ron Parker, CEO of the Executive Leadership Council, will walk in the room and constantly scan to see where is the power source. “I learned this from Vernon Jordan,” he says, “Who, as an advisor to some of the most powerful people in the world, is extremely influential.”

Know when and how to pivot. Mr. Parker also shares, “The new 21st century leader must be agile and able to move fluidly through ecosystems to be effective. You can’t be effective if you are always intoxicated by the moment.” Recognize that you are probably not a member of just one ecosystem, but a few. Learn to transition between them successfully by mastering an understanding of what makes them unique.

Be willing to hear the truth. This starts with having a trusted relationship with a peer, colleague or sponsor and being open to feedback. Understand your opportunities for improvement and focus on taking action. Constantly test and learn.

Seek and find a sponsor. Mike Fucci shares that being courageous, and being heard, in bringing your unique insights to issues requires backing. “As an emerging leader, you will need, to get the right sponsor on critical pieces, to be the additional weight behind you.”

While we believe it’s up to leadership to establish a culture open to innovation and advancement, it’s incumbent upon individuals to master comprehension and navigation through ecosystems. As others get to know you and what you bring to the table, you will emerge as a leader driving evolution and benefits for all.


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