Walking the Fine Line of Majority Culture

July 19, 2022
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Whether it’s intentional or not, all organizations have a culture. Some are openly proud about having one that is innovative, inclusive, or creative. But even those that don’t actively cultivate one have shared values, beliefs, expectations, and ways to get things done.

If you’re a new arrival, and what’s more, a senior new arrival whose success is absolutely dependent on strong relationships, culture can be a tricky area to navigate.

If you get it wrong, then you face losing sponsorship, losing impact, and ultimately not achieving your ambitions. Conversely, if you’re quick to align yourself to the dominant culture to get ahead, you risk undermining the very changes you were brought in to make.

This is a fascinating area for us to broach as coaches. What happens when an agile, innovative, disruptive leader is hired into an organization that desperately needs someone to challenge the status quo, but in no way tolerates it?

Its’s a fine line to walk between becoming a valued member of the organization and being yourself. As coaches, something we help new-in-role leaders to navigate is the extent to which they want to adapt. By bringing into their consciousness the places where their style differs to that of the dominant culture, we can help them choose how to show up.

A leader’s role is full of interdependencies, they need to rely on their peers to make things happen and stakeholder management is critical. So, feeling like you’re not fitting in takes more than a psychological toll.

Pragmatically, it will be harder to get things done if your leadership style means people are less willing to partner with you.

So, if you’re hired for your difference and find you’re experiencing resistance, can you find ways to disrupt that are palatable to your peers? Can you navigate a path that does not force conformity to the majority culture but that enables you to maintain all-important relationships?

Teams can only fully leverage the benefits of diversity when they allow people to be themselves. If dominant culture is preventing that, it’s detrimental to team and organizational performance. Thoughtfully walking the fine line between majority cultural norms, and your own motives and preferences, is a powerful route to bringing about cultural change from the top in a deeper and enduring way.

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Michael Peterman is a senior partner at RHR and the head of development for Executive Bench. He builds next-generation leadership solutions, each of which is grounded in science and research.