How Driving in Greece Relates to Organizational Culture

Two-lane road

I spent two weeks traveling through Greece and Turkey with my sons this past summer. We experienced many new things; one of which for me was driving in Greece. I rented a car to travel through the Peloponnesian Peninsula and I learned that the rules of the road in Greece are quite different than those in the U.S. In the U.S. people talk about differences between New York drivers and Boston drivers, or between New Jersey drivers and Florida drivers; however, the difference among these different U.S. drivers is the equivalent of differences among dialects of English. It is still the same language. Driving in Greece, on the other hand, was like speaking an entirely different language. Even the experience of driving on the left side of the road in Ireland was not as different as driving in Greece.

My sons’ reactions to the experience of driving the Greek roads outside of Athens reminded me of how some new professionals react to an organization’s culture at a new job. Organizational culture is basically the unwritten rules of an organization. People new to an organization need to learn these rules through active inquiry, observation, and trial and error. They need to realize that some of the actions and behaviors that seem to make no sense to them as recent outsiders are rational to the members of the organization who have internalized those rules. The same held true for driving in Greece.

One of the first odd behaviors I observed as we left Athens for the countryside was that Greek drivers drive with their right wheels about 2 feet on the right side of the shoulder line, as if they were getting ready to pull off the road. My sons, both new drivers, thought this was “crazy,” because it looked like everyone was doing it. I thought it was quite odd as well, but the difference between my sons and me was that once I identified this as a pattern I tried to figure out what it meant. Many new professionals I have supervised have taken the same stance as my sons to the unwritten rules of the organization they have joined—they assume that what they are observing is irrational behavior. As an experienced driver, I assumed there was a rational reason for a behavior that would seem so bizarre on the roads of the United States. It took me a little while to figure it out and part of my trial and error almost cost us dearly.

The Greek road system is very different from ours, since it developed long after there were towns and villages and cities. Outside of the very few “super highways,” Greek roads are two-lane. Motorcycles, tiny slow cars, farm vehicles, “normal” cars, big trucks, and buses share these roads. There are no passing lanes. So Greek drivers drive as if they will be passed at any time. I watched as drivers on both sides ceded the center of the road to faster vehicles.

Before I caught onto their rules of the road, I was driving as if I was on a U.S. road. I was driving in the center of my lane closer to the middle than to the side. At one point, I was nearly struck head on by a car passing in the other direction. I shouted and yanked the wheel to the right as a flash of white passed within inches of my car. I was angry at that idiot who endangered my life and the lives of my sons. It wasn’t until later that I realized I was the one endangering lives. The other driver was operating according to their rules of the road; I wasn’t. He (or she) assumed that cars coming in the other direction would pay attention to BOTH sides of the road and drive closer to or over the shoulder leaving the center of the road clear for cars passing in EITHER direction. By failing to learn the unwritten rules of an organization, a newcomer may view actions by others in a negative light when, in fact, it is your actions (and the assumptions they are based on) that are causing a problem. It turns out that I was the one who almost caused the accident.

In the U.S., double lines in the center of the road are a clear sign that you are not to attempt to pass other cars and rarely would you see anyone attempt to pass another car in that situation. In Greece, drivers pass cars whenever they believe they can make it. Double lines in the center of the road are regarded as merely advisory. However, if the driver ahead sees your intention to pass and realizes that you won’t be able to make it (e.g., either there is an on-coming vehicle you can’t see, or a blind curve is ahead), they will move to the center of the road and block you. The first time this happened to me, I thought the driver was being an asshole, especially since this was on a stretch of road without a double line. Then a motorcycle that I hadn’t seen whizzed by and the driver ahead of me pulled to the right and let me pass. In the U.S., we are more competitive on the roads with some drivers attempting to thwart attempts at passing, or at the very least, not actively assisting your attempt to pass another car. In Greece, what I took to be a competitive/obstructionist move was actually an incredibly cooperative move that potentially saved the life of a motorcyclist. Organizational newcomers need to be wary of attributing motives to the behaviors they observe. What may be seen as competitive or unhelpful in one light can take on a whole other meaning when viewed differently.

As we continued our travels through Greece, I made it a game with my sons to find the patterns in the actions and behaviors we were observing and to try to figure out what they meant and how they helped the drivers on the road. We learned that drivers travel at whatever speed they want. The unwritten rule in the U.S. is that you can travel up to 10 MPH over the posted speed limit. There appeared to be no such rule on Greek roads. On the open road, it appeared that the range of vehicle speed was much wider than at home—some much faster, some much slower (obviously, the culture related to passing each other contributes to the ability to travel at varying speeds on two lane roads). We discovered that speed signs really communicate the severity of the curve you are about to enter, not how fast you should be going.

I am sure that none of these rules of Grecian driving are written down anywhere, just as the cultural rules of any organization are not contained in any employee handbook. It is our job to observe, inquire, and, at the same time, try to withhold judgment about the actions we see around us; to try to discover the rationale for such behavior. Once we understand, then we can judge the efficacy of such rules.

Bon voyage!

Please follow me at @pglove33

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