I thought working in London would be similar to working in Wellington. We speak the same language, our cultures are basically the same, after all, a big chunk of Kiwi culture originated in Blighty. Except they aren’t similar. Not at all.
So here’s the problem: It’s the layers. So many layers. In London, you’re likely to be working in a management structure that could have served as inspiration for the Burj Khalifa. They love their layers in the UK – the BBC’s just announced that the UK has seven different social classes.
At the bottom of the corporate tree employees have very little autonomy and even fewer responsibilities. The manager might have a little more autonomy, perhaps the ability to plan their own ‘comfort’ stops, and after you rise a few more floors, you might find someone who’s allowed to sign off a letter. But probably not. I’ve worked in public service in Wellington, so I’m used to ridiculous sign-off processes, but we’ve got nothing on London.
My first experience of this cultural quirk came when I was taken aside and informed that I shouldn’t sign off an informal, internal email with “cheers”. Apparently, this is because the email recipient was too senior, despite the fact that this colleague and I regularly discussed sport over email.
What makes it worse is that the “feedback” to go through three layers of management to get to me. I sat there, nodding, wondering what planet I had landed on.
In many cases, rather than deign to talk to someone more than one level below them, senior staff communicate through managers. Why have a quick word with the person that needs to do something, when Chinese whispers are far less efficient? I’ve even had my boss ask if he should bother to learn the names of the “reception girls”.
But the absolute worst part is that people don’t say what they mean. In New Zealand, we have a reputation for straight talking, even if we sometimes won’t comment for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. In London, they say one thing, and mean another. I’ll regularly come away from a conversation thinking that we’ve agreed one thing, only to find that my colleague has the opposite impression. We’re all wandering around hoping we’ve read between enough lines to dowse what it is that we’re expected to do. And forget about asking for clarification, that’s just getting ideas above your station.
But there is an upside, if you can call it that. No-one knows who you are.
In any New Zealand city, if you weren’t quite up to the demands of a job, or you fell out with your employer, there’s a decent chance that someone will hear about it. Here, not so much. It’s so bad that recruiters have to give advice like “don’t make up qualifications and work experience on your CV – interviewers will ask about it.” And that tried and tested method of testing whether a candidate is overstating their skills and experience… In London, they do that after you’ve been given the job.
Oh, and you can be sure that when you return to New Zealand, you’ll be so adept at mental chess, you’ll boss any job you take on. Or you’ll be paralysed by confusion when someone actually says what they mean.