Mayvin Director Sarah Fraser shares her experience of culture change from her move to Italy.
I am learning to enjoy one of my favourite things in a different way. I love coffee, and I particularly love to stop off at a café in the morning to get a good cappuccino and a pastry. After an early morning meeting I’ll often find somewhere to sip coffee and savour a second breakfast whilst doing some emails. Rome, the capital of coffee now demands that I do things differently. Having moved to Rome this year, I now find myself joining other workers in their race to munch on a pastry and down a cappuccino while standing at the bar and get away as quickly as possible. And if I dare to ask for ‘porta via’?! My order will come with a roll of the eyes and the cappuccino will be handed over in a plastic cup normally only used for childrens’ parties. I am sent on my way having being firmly labelled as a foreigner. So this is what culture change can feel like!
I’ve experienced plenty of culture shock moments as my work with NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and charities takes me to interesting and unusual place across the world. It’s that moment when someone greets you in a way you didn’t expect, or you come out of the airport and the noises and smells hit you in the face and it takes a moment to find your balance. I love those moments, but trying to settle and ‘fit in’ somewhere culturally different, even if only slightly, is a different thing.
It’s no longer just about enjoying, experimenting with and finding a way around the differences, this is about changing long-term habits and ways of doing things, of letting go of what is known and comfortable.
We both create and are created by the culture around us; theorists Ralph Stacey and GH Mead talk about a constant process of CRP (Complex Responsive Processes) as we communicate and make sense of the responses in context. So I wonder whether I am also now being changed by the culture around me, as well as contributing to, what is quite a multicultural life in the Trastevere district in Rome. The time I will notice it is when I go home and come back into contact with the friends, family, colleagues that know me well and have expectations of how I am and who I am. The moment when they point out some difference, a change I have not consciously noticed in myself. The question then is which version of me is the real ‘me’? These changes may be good, but surely I should be conscious about this process in order to be ‘authentic’ in myself?
In organisational life, we are constantly shaped by and shaping the culture around us. It is challenging to work or behave in a different way to those around us; we run the risk of exclusion, of being an outsider or a ‘radical’. In my work with leaders and individuals trying to enable culture change in their organisations, I am constantly met with the challenge of this, how difficult it is to stand out, to go against the way of things and sometimes maintain their authenticity in the face of such difference. So what if I do want to have a cappuccino in the afternoon, why can’t I? Why can’t a manager run their team meetings differently? It takes energy and awareness to do the unexpected.
In Org Design it is important to establish what stays the same as well as what needs to change to meet the new strategy. It may help people feel safer and move with the change it they feel like their current world is honoured. What do people need in this process of change? A place for support, connection, and understanding, along with a reassuring sense of what is not changing. I have found this in Rome. It’s simple things like a language class and social that I go every week, a room full of foreigners all trying to fit in, and wanting a place to make sense of their culture shock experiences and where their difference is somehow ‘normal’!
In addition to this I have built up some routines that connect me back to myself, in those moments where my anchors seems to have gone, a yoga class, donning my running shoes, and finding a orchestra. All things that connect me back to my strong sense of who I am.
Culture change is about doing things differently, but it is also about enabling people to find their authentic selves in new ways of working. In my work with international NGOs this can be complex: working with multicultural teams, working in a globally connected network. But the reality of it is not complex, through action learning and action research based programmes for change people are supported to talk about the culture change challenges they are experiencing, where this is normal, but also where they are heard to a level where they can be reaffirmed and find themselves as they are both shaped by and shape the new way of things. It’s about helping people to recognise that their core beliefs and value systems are not changing generally but are often just being expressed in different ways.
I absolutely love my cappuccino and pastries in the many Roman cafés I frequent. (I have experimented with café macchiato’s now too; there really is some sense to not drinking a cup of milk after dinner!) But, on occasion I go against the grain and order a cappuccino in the afternoon. It’s a small cultural rebellion that makes me feel like me, that gives me some control to contribute to the culture, test out whether I will be rejected, and see what comes back.
References about experiencing culture change
Mead, G. H. (1967). Mind, self and society. London: The University of Chicago Press.
Stacey, R. D. (2003). Organisations as complex processes of relating. Journal of Innovative Management, 8, 27-39.