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Culture Clash


To a large extent, especially in the early years, the culture of Novell reflected the culture of Utah. Most Novell employees were Utah Mormons. When people from other parts of the country—customers, analysts, members of the press, and employees at field offices and at acquired subsidiary companies—came into contact with employees in Utah, a learning experience was often in store for both parties.

Novell employees outside of Utah had a tendency to regard the employees at company headquarters as rustic, benighted, in thrall to a strange religion, and inefficient if not downright incompetent. At trade shows or other corporate events these non-Mormon out-of-staters would often get together for drinks at the end of the day and swap headquarters horror stories: Problems that had been ignored, situations that had been poorly handled, bizarre executive behavior or decisions, steps taken to save money that ended up costing money, flagrant waste, employees who continued to receive paychecks for weeks or months after they had resigned or been terminated, headquarters employees who had lied in order to evade responsibility, and on and on. Although the horror stories were for the most part true, the laughter that attended the recounting of them derived from a sense of isolation—geographic, political, and cultural—that field employees felt in their relations with the home office.

Utah employees sometimes picked up on this “outsider” attitude. Their first reaction was usually shock or disbelief because, like most people, they believed they lived in the best place and all other places were an inferior second choice. Some Utahns believe their way of life is pretty much the norm across the nation and are genuinely unaware of the diversity of ideas and cultures that also define America, but many other Utahns have experienced diversity, have lived and worked elsewhere, and are in every sense citizens of the world. So the second reaction to this condescending attitude of some outsiders was anger: “Where do you get off … !” Many headquarters employees looked down on the field employees—especially those who worked in the acquired subsidiaries—as pushy, abrasive, sinful, obnoxious invaders.

Such a clash of cultures occurs whenever people from different areas interact. The Dutch think their Belgian neighbors are rather dull-witted. New Yorkers think the worst drivers come from New Jersey. The East Coast jokes about the West Coast and vice-versa. Yet the disparity in cultures is much greater between Utah and other areas of the country. Someone from Chicago would have an easier time adjusting to Los Angeles than to Provo.

Some flexibility, on both sides, was required in acclimating new employees from out of state to the pervasive Mormon influence at corporate headquarters.

A Case Study

Consider the case of one non-Mormon employee who was recruited to Novell from the East Coast in 1988. On moving to Provo, she was asked numerous times by both neighbors and coworkers the inevitable question: “Are you LDS?” Upon answering no, she was immediately reassured, “Of course it doesn’t matter; I was simply curious.” But of course she soon realized that religion does matter in Utah—in ways it matters nowhere else in the country.

Later, in employee orientation, this new recruit learned how to use The Coordinator, Novell’s electronic mail system at that time. The class was asked to send messages to each other. What message did our girl receive? “Do as you should. Read the Book of Mormon every day and live right.”

By now she was wondering what kind of company she had joined.

Soon after her hire, she attended one of the monthly MEMBERS meetings (see p.194)in the cafeteria, where Ray gave hugs to new employees and briefed everyone on how well Novell was doing. Engulfed in a sea of blond heads, she was struck by the lack of ethnic diversity and by the youth of those assembled—the company was run by kids! After some comments by Ray and some irreverent wisecracks by Craig, the pep rally concluded with the cutting of several huge sheet cakes from Provo Bakery, all slathered thick with sugary icing. As the acres of cake were devoured, it occurred to her that sweets might be the Novell intoxicant of choice.

A Misunderstanding

The Salt Lake City advertising firm, Fotheringham & Associates, was hired to design a Novell publication. After this was announced, an engineer sent a memo to Judith complaining of the choice of agency.

“It has come to my attention that we have retained the services of an agency called Fathering Haven,” the engineer wrote. “I think we should strongly consider asking this agency to change its name as a condition of doing business with us. I think Fathering Haven is an insult, and I’m sure our Father in Heaven would consider it insulting also.”

He was serious.

The Prism of the Prisoner’s Dilemma

One reason the “Are you LDS?” question is important in Utah is that it sets a framework for future relationships—whether to expect Cooperation or Defection, in the sense of the mathematical concept called the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

First published in 1950 by scientists working for RAND Corporation, the concept has caught on and there are now a number of variations on the original Prisoner’s Dilemma. As I discuss in Chapter Nine of Evolution and Thought (Author House: 2010), in many kinds of day-to-day transactions, two choices are being made: The first choice is how to structure a deal. The second is whether to cooperate or defect on the deal after it has been agreed to.

In the mutual cooperation environment, protections against betrayal are minimal, the deal can be made quickly, and it can be changed quickly if the surrounding circumstances change. This deal structure works best when there is mutual trust, an agreed goal, and the parties expect an ongoing relationship.

In Utah at least, the question “Are you LDS?” is not so much a question of religious belief as a question of “How should I treat you in terms of cooperating and defecting?” If you say “No” then it will take a while longer to establish a double-cooperator relationship with a Mormon.

The dark side of this is that Utah is renowned as the fraud capital of the US. If you answer “Yes” then the typical Mormon lets some of his or her guard down. He or she expects that if you recommend an action, you will have the interests of both sides in mind when you make that recommendation.

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