Staff at work at computer screens in a modern office in the City of London, circa 1990. (Photo by Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Longevity: City of London workers in 1990 © Getty

We are packing up the Financial Times office, ready to move across the Thames to Bracken House, our new/old home. New because it has been gutted and remodelled. Old because it was our office 30 years ago. I am one of a couple of dozen employees who worked there then and are going back.

Why have I stayed at the FT so long? It may be a natural conservatism. That the FT had a final salary scheme, rewarding long service, certainly helped. But it was mostly that I felt at home as soon as I walked into Bracken House all those years ago and, in spite of the inevitable ups and downs, have felt that way ever since.

A new piece of research from the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford business school, has looked into what helps people fit into companies and what makes them stay.

The research team were given access to a medium-sized technology company where they were able to analyse not just the personnel records but 5m emails sent internally over eight years. They matched the emails to the personnel records and removed any identification of the employees. They then machine-analysed the patterns of communication in the emails, looking at the senders’ “linguistic signatures”.

They also sent two surveys to employees, one asking what they thought the culture of the organisation was and another what their preferred organisational culture would look like.

They concluded that there were two aspects to the employees’ relationship with each other and with the organisation. The first was values, which the researchers defined as “deeply held and enduring beliefs about what is desirable and appropriate”. Our values don’t change much and if we feel the organisation has similar ones that “leads to greater attachment, heightened motivation, stronger commitment, and higher productivity”.

People who feel their values match those of the organisation tend to stay. But values are only one part of it. You may share values with the company and with the other employees but may have a different way of expressing them.

This was the second aspect the researchers looked at: the cultural fit. In all those millions of emails, if most of the people you communicated with had a positive, upbeat manner and you had a negative and sarcastic one, the common values wouldn’t be enough to make you feel at home.

As an example, the researchers looked at a wonderful book I reviewed 15 years ago called Unpopular Culture: The Ritual of Complaint in a British Bank. It was written by a US academic called John Weeks, who spent six years observing NatWest bank, investigating why the staff spent so much time moaning. An outsider might have assumed the complaining meant the staff disliked the bank. Far from it; their gentle whingeing was a sign of affection for the organisation and of loyalty to each other.

You had to be an insider to know just how much complaining was appropriate. “Fitting in to an organisational culture depends on possessing the tacit and layered knowledge necessary for accurately deciphering this intricate cultural code,” the California researchers said.

How do you acquire this tacit and layered knowledge? By listening and watching, by possessing what the California researchers call “perceptual accuracy”. If you have the values and can pick up the banter, you can thrive. If you lack either, you probably won’t.

I was fortunate that I shared the FT’s values and, while I had lived in the UK for only four years when I joined, managed to acquire the behavioural and speaking style, or at least enough of it.

But you can see the problem: while values may be universal, or at least widespread, cultural styles of communicating are not. If you have a sufficiently different background from the people who set the cultural rules, you may have difficulty adapting to them. If you are different neurologically, literal-minded, for example, where others are oblique, you may struggle too, however much you have to contribute.

This is the problem with today’s drive to build diverse organisations. So much of what we need to know to fit in is never taught, and sometimes cannot be learnt. Part of the solution is for organisations to be more explicit about it, to talk more openly not only about what the organisation stands for, but how that is expressed every day. That doesn’t mean it will immediately become more accommodating and welcoming. But it is a discussion that every organisation professing diversity needs to have.
Twitter: @Skapinker

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