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What is a Cultural Adaptor?

Jan 03, 2022
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A significant priority among executive leaders is the idea that people in their organization are a cultural fit. But what about people who are not an immediate cultural fit but have the capacity to learn and adjust? The name for this type of person is called a cultural adaptor. 

The idea of cultural adaption primarily applies to current employees and potential new hires. While both need the capacity to adapt in a changing or new organizational culture, the dynamics for each one is different. 

Before I address the differences, let me frame the context for cultural adaptors. Potential new hires are less complicated in adapting to culture than current employees. A new hire will enter an organization straight from college or from employment at another organization(s). That person can expect their onboarding includes a thorough understanding of a new culture with new people. However, a current employee must adapt to a new culture largely with the same people and a steady stream on new hires. The exception may be when two organizations merge.


How does a current employee adapt?

Every employee must come to terms with the fact that change is essential for an organization to stay in business. Most would acknowledge the idea of change in operations, products, and services, but few take the time to recognize how this effects organizational culture. 

When changes are made in culture it means employees journey into unchartered territory. What lies ahead of the organization is not like the past. What current employees understood requires further understanding. The solutions to problem solving yesterday may not work tomorrow in a changing culture. Also, the qualifications, education, and experience that got an employee their job won’t sustain them for the future. An adaptive capacity is essential.     

The first thing current employees need to do if they are to become cultural adaptors is all about letting go – and in doing so – learning to close the gap between a developing culture and the present reality of the employee. 

Here are five strategies that current employees can engage to shorten the adjustment period and make it a smoother ride as a cultural adaptor: 

     1. Become curious. Better than reading a memo, ask questions. Put some thought into how and when and to whom you ask questions. Curious questions will help you adapt to a developing organizational culture. Avoid critical questions because they may appear divisive.

     2. Put effort into understanding your organization’s developing culture by avoiding a judgmental attitude. A changing environment can appear strange, even wrong. But remember, you had no difficulty with adapting when the organization first hired you. When you understand the rationale for why things are done differently, its sheds light on issues you may have struggled with at work.

     3. Pause and reflect preventing quick and rash conclusions. Certain behaviors that were acceptable may be frowned on now. Pausing and reflecting helps you see things through the lens of a developing organizational cultural.

     4. Prepare yourself for mistakes as you adapt to a changing culture. Most mistakes are subtle so try to see the humorous side of things. The chances are that others will respond to you with support because you are the first to make cultural faux pas.   

     5. Pursue continued support of others even if that means the help of someone who has only been with the organization a short time. Remember, they don’t know the old organizational culture. Build cultural allies to clarify any confusion that you face.        


How does a new hire adapt?

New hires generally have ninety days to adapt to the culture of an organization. If current employees must let things go, new hires must quickly read the proverbial tea leaves of culture. There are differences for new hires straight from college and those who are hired from another organization. The latter is a mix of letting go of a previous culture – like a current employee – whereas the former has very little to let go. Either way, understanding organizational plays a big role in initial success. 

Here are five strategies that new hires can engage to understand organizational culture within the typical ninety-day period as a cultural adaptor:

     1. Observe where and how people collaborate, make decisions, and get things done. How much time do they use meeting with one another? Do they work from home or from the office? Are your new colleagues friendly and open to meeting with you? How many times do your colleagues cancel a meet and greet time with you as a new hire? Do you need others to help you make the necessary connections?

     2. Notice how people communicate with each other. Do they go through formal channels in planned meetings where everyone is prepared? Is this accompanied by spontaneous communication with little documentation? The degree of hierarchy often determines whether you need to go through a personal assistance to communicate with someone. Are direct reports documented in a summary fashion with direct communication, or are you expected to detail those reports with a brief in-person meeting?

     3. Take note of the decision-making process. Are there informational meetings that result in informal decisions finalized by the executive leadership? When a decision is made observe the process for implementing it. Is there a bias for action or a bias for more information? Either way, who are the stakeholders that influence the implementation of a decision?

     4. Pay attention to the public recognition process in the organization. To what degree are people championed for their individual work and teamwork? The culture of your organization may accommodate problem solving through collaboration, or it may lean towards individual innovation. Does your natural ambition emerge in a team or on your own? The key is to understand how the culture works.

     5. Look for how people handle change. You bring change to the organization by default as a new hire. Listen carefully to those around you during your onboarding process and observe how people respond to you as a new hire. You might be just the person they want to collaborate with, or not. If you were hired because your new employer noticed you are a change-agent, pace yourself with other employees. Buy-in to you as a new hire is critical.             

It is very rare for current employees and new hires to become an immediate cultural fit with a natural capacity to learn and adjust. While both need to adapt, the dynamics are different. Engaging in simple and intentional strategies moves an organization away from cultural chaos and towards cultural conversion.


Cultural Clarity can help your new hires to adapt to your organizational culture by working with you on your onboarding process. Press here and book your call now.

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