4 stages of workplace culture shock

⏳ 3 minute read

Culture shock is a very common phenomenon in the workplace that people rarely talk about and we’re here to break it down for you.



Published on August 11, 2020

by Neil Rojas

We rarely talk about culture shock at work because it makes us seem like we are not cut out for it. As new members of the environment, we want to show our peers that we are one of them so that we can fit in and not be treated as an outsider.

What is culture shock? It is the feeling of unfamiliarity one experiences when first immersed to a new environment where the way of doing things is very different from home—or simply, what one was used to.

According to Kalervo Oberg, there are four different phases of culture shock that undoubtedly, all of us have experienced even as kids—moving to a new neighborhood, transferring to a new school, or landing your first job.

1. Honeymoon Phase

This is when we see all the positive effects of the change in our environment: the way our teams openly exchange ideas, the manner at which our new manager coaches us on how to perform our tasks, the feeling that we get from playing an important role in the company. There is an air of mystery for certain floors/areas of the office, how different people’s tasks relate to ours, and how our minds are very eager to learn new things.

2. Negotiation Phase

At the three-month mark (sometimes earlier), when the way of doing things have become familiar and there are little to no mysteries left to explore, we start to compare our new environment to what we were used to. We start to notice that the way people treat each other is different than what we expected. The way conflicts or disagreements are handled may be quite uncomfortable for us because it differs from our previous experience. Our grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side syndrome takes effect and we start to experience anxiety and may question ourselves whether we have made the right decision.

3. Adjustment Phase

Whether it was our way of coping with all the changes around us or we found a way to deal with most situations, we start to develop patterns of how to interact with our new environment—we begin to expect what happens next and how things are done. This happens between 6-12 months when we start to develop the responses we need to communicate effectively with our colleagues as well as how to position ourselves in professional and social gatherings. The anxiety is lifted as we start to figure out our way around the office, our teammates, and other people.

4. Adaptation Phase

This is when our actions and responses become normal with no traces of doubt whether what we are doing is the right thing in each situation. This is also when we develop our footing and begin to assert ourselves—progressing to being more concerned about our career development after achieving belongingness. The transition from adjustment to adaption is difficult to determine but a good sign is when we can feel when someone is struggling to cope with the environment. When this time comes, it is our turn to help them adjust and adapt to the culture.

Final Thoughts: It might be common to ask what we can do to avoid workplace culture shock. This is what I asked myself after leaving a job that still gives me nightmares years after I left it. I experienced the full blunt of self-doubt that came after I realized that I can’t do the job any longer. The thing is, there are just environments and roles that are in conflict with your values and your personality. You could power through it, but if it’s not aligned to the core of who you are, you’ll end up not realizing your full potential. I’ll leave you with this quote from Paramahansa Yogananda, “Environment is stronger than willpower.” We owe it to ourselves to find work where we belong. 

Neil Rojas

Neil is the co-founder at Workbean. He is a certified Employer Brand Leader from the Employer Branding College. He is fascinated with extracting talent data to help companies understand their people better. He is fuelled by bubble tea and can often be sighted inside bookstores reading the back covers.

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