Barrels of water & impenetrable cultures

In Tours in France, there is a beautiful medieval square called the Place Plumereau, now the home to multiple bars and restaurants. As a thriving spot, it offers employment opportunities, pouring drinks, serving tables, preparing food. The employees get to know one another, many of them working there for years and forming tight bonds. It is also the place a lot of young, and often needy, people go to get their first job.

Anyone who has ever learnt to work behind a bar knows that, regardless of how much time you’ve spent on the other side, it takes a little time to get to know the ropes. The disorientation, vulnerability and willingness that comes with learning , allows the experienced to test the new comers.

As the bars start to fill in the early evening and the customers start to line up, one of the experienced staff will turn to a new starter and declare that they’re all going to be in trouble, there’s a real problem, they’ve run out of water. Could they go and see whether one of the other bars will loan them a barrel of water?

The quickly go to the first bar, but unfortunately they’ve also run out, they suggest the next one to try. But again, no luck, they have just enough for the evening. The poor new employee, getting increasingly panicked and red in the face is sent from pillar to post, from bar to bar with a promise that if they just try one more, they’ll surely find the answer there.

And of course, there are no barrels of water. The water comes out of the taps in the same way that it does in their home. The victim is part of an initiation, a joke that is played, in one variation or another, on countless employees trying to show willing just to “fit in”.

This is a simple manifestation of the impenetrable culture that exists in so many of our organisations. Where we challenge people to complete pointless tasks to demonstrate their commitment to and compatibility with the organisation. At the worst extremes it is expressed by borderline discriminatory behaviour, but more usually by more benign, but equally thoughtless behaviour designed to test “fit”.

No matter how hard the individual tries, no matter the efforts that they put in, the end only comes when one of the established decides they’ve shown enough to end the game and allow the individual to join the ranks, or instead they become so frustrated and despondent that they decide to leave – regardless of the cost to themselves.

It may not be a barrel of water, it might be “understanding the business”, or “being more part of the team”, it could be the need to be “more vocal, visible or present”. Ultimately we place the same challenges on people, day in and day out, without really understanding the measures of success, other than receiving our acceptance. And although different, they are equally fictitious and pointless, testing nothing but perseverance and willingness to endure. Which of course, has absolutely no relevance to anything meaningful in the context of the organisation. Not even the ability to pour a beer.