Every industry, every institution, every office has its own culture: a set of rules, attitudes, and expectations that govern behavior. For me, the importance of culture is brought into sharp relief every year around this time as ~1,350 new college freshman learn to navigate the university where I work (with varying levels of success).

A few aspects of university culture:

  • Faculty expect to be treated with respect, and in some cases, a little deference.
  • Many important offices have weird names, like the Bursar’s office and Registrar’s office. Students will need their help at some point, so they need to know what those offices do.
  • Universities run on rules, forms, and deadlines, and there’s no way around them. Except when there is: through an appeals process, filling out an obscure form, or just talking to the right person.

Some first-year students start to get it right away. I’m in unfamiliar territory, and I need to learn the rules here. Some take longer to get it. Some don’t even know there’s anything to get.

College is hard already, and for students who struggle to acclimate to university culture, it’s even harder. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to anything, and their instincts often prove wrong (which becomes demoralizing over time). You can’t succeed at college without learning the rules of the game, and helping students learn those rules is a big part of my job.

But culture matters just as much in the working world.

In every field, there are customs and expectations. Some things are to be done in a certain way. A generous mentor may help you navigate, but often no one tells you when you’re violating cultural norms. The system just ignores you.

When our professional efforts seem ineffective, it’s worth asking ourselves if there’s something we don’t understand about the culture of our field, our institution, or our individual workplace.

Becoming more productive isn’t always the answer. Sometimes, it’s simpler than that.