Here’s a workplace attitude comparison I think you will find interesting. Recently social media evangelist Jill Rowley’s employment termination at Oracle has made the headlines. Rowley was portrayed as a talented creative whose free spirit did not fit the “old school” Oracle mentality. Of course I do not have the full story, but this is what her situation looks like to me:

It appears she began her social media work at Oracle without knowing much about the company culture or people in her company, their skills, capacities and weaknesses. I wonder if there was a launch program that would help the uninitiated understand what her plan was and how they could support it.

After being employed a short while with Oracle, Rowley offended C-level employees with embarrassing tweets, yet apologies or changes in approach were not evident. When asked about her work with Oracle by the news media, Rowley made unfavorable and judgmental comments about the company. Apparently when fired she laughed and told reporters it should have happened earlier.

Now consider Song Lu (not her real name) a high level financial forecaster who immigrated from China to Canada, also a talented creative but in a different field. At her new job she became quickly aware that the company had problems and needed an overhaul. This caused Lu to reflect rather than to react. She quietly and respectfully asked questions to find out what had been done and to understand the reasoning and circumstances behind policies and procedures. She traced problems back to the source and then asked herself which of these issues were in the realm of her control as a new employee at the company.

When she found something she could help with, Song Lu explained her idea to fix the problem to her superiors, showed how she would operationalize the idea and revealed what the benefit and risk could be to them. She then proceeded to not only fix the issue but to secure three years of tax return monies owed to the company. With the cheque in the company bank, she went back to her employers and explained her plan for a system overhaul in phases and steps. As you can imagine, Song had them eating out of her hand. They were in tears when she left a few years later.

Song Lu’s advice to new employees was this:

“When you are in a new place, first try to understand what is there before you make any changes. The change you make could be a problem because you don’t have enough understanding.”

Whereas Rowley took the wrecking ball to the existing system post haste, Lu carefully chose a problem she knew would win the entire management over to her because it benefited the company.  She knew that choosing the low hanging fruit would give her access to the whole tree and freedom to make future changes.

Lu chose problems whose solutions had benefits for the company and she did not reveal the company’s flaws or show it in a bad light. She treated everyone there with respect and took the time to get to know who they were.

Note that this would have been much harder for Song than this would have been for someone born in North America: Song had a strong Chinese accent, was much more qualified than any of her superiors, had little work experience in Canada, and was the first international employee the company had ever hired. They were nervous about her and she was not particularly welcomed to the workforce. With all these odds against her, Song still managed to completely overhaul a broken system, build bridges and improve the company image.

Here are Song’s new employee tips:

  1. Respect the company you work for, they pay your salary.
  2. Speak well of your company in public and take care not to cause people to lose face.
  3. Get to know the people you are working with so you can see what works with them and what doesn’t.
  4. Take the time to understand the system you work with and its history.
  5. When you decide to make a change, choose one that will benefit the company.
  6. Strive to win over your superiors by showing them what your work has accomplished in their favour.
  7. Once you have buy-in, build out your new plan carefully showing sensitivity to the people involved and making sure they understand the why, what, where, when and how of your plan.

You may say, “But what if I find out the company really is horrible, corrupt or abusive? Should I follow Song’s principles then?” Your company may be a write off, and there may well be reasons to reveal its abuses publicly at some point. But if you have not taken the time to go through the due process Song’s behavior demonstrates, and if your attitude is not one of basic respect for the hand that feeds you, whatever you have to say about the company may not be taken seriously.

The person who believes he or she knows better or knows more than the entire company has no room to learn. Arrogance and pride lead to mistakes and poor professional judgment. Humility, not entitlement should guide our thoughts, feelings and actions, particularly in a new job.

Of course Jill and Song are different personalities and will each have their own kinds of responses to any given situation. Nonetheless Song’s story prompted me to rethink many of my “western” attitudes towards work and to consider how I could have done things differently.

Her example is one more proof of why we need to get to know the people and systems we work with, and desperately need to learn from each other’s cultural approaches.  We westerners can all learn from Song Lu’s respectful and context-sensitive approach to attracting more flies with honey than vinegar.