Ask These 8 Questions To Understand A Company's Culture

January 15, 2021 by
Ask These 8 Questions To Understand A Company's Culture
Rodney Boman

According to a recent Career Builder survey, two-thirds of employees say they’ve accepted a job and then realized it’s a bad fit, and 50% of them ended up quitting within six months. For those in this situation who stick around, not only is the lack of alignment around culture likely to make them miserable, chances are that it will also impede their success in the organization, which will not only exacerbate the aforementioned misery, but may even eventually result in their dismissal.

The idea of culture “fit” is fraught with bias. Many companies now try to ensure that the hiring process effectively screens for people who would enhance the organization’s culture. But you are also interviewing them. As a job candidate, you’ll want to understand if you bring new ideas to the team, how open to something different will they be? Likewise, if you’ve already accepted the job, and have asked some cursory culture questions during the interview process to give you initial comfort, you now have a chance to dive deeper to understand potential landmines to avoid and what approaches that will allow you to achieve some quick wins and be successful.

There are countless questions you can ask to assess culture—below are just eight of them. You’ll want to ask these questions to a wide range of people to see how consistent the answers are that you receive. Groups or departments may have unique sub-cultures, as might the London office compared to the LA office. Even companies lauded for their exceptional cultures have sub-groups of employees (such as women and people of color) who may experience the culture differently. Some questions to ask include:

1. What adjectives would you use to describe the culture here?

This is a bit of a free association exercise. In addition to the actual words people share, how quickly do they answer—or do they have to think about it? If the latter, they may very well be trying how to politely phrase some really awkward or uncomfortable dynamics. Clearly it’s good to know if the answer is “collaborative” versus “competitive,” or “fast-moving” versus “methodical,” and so on. Whatever the answer, a good follow-up question is “What are some examples of that in action?” So, if they say “collaborative,” there should be a plethora of examples to pull from. If they have a hard time coming up with an example or speak in vague generalities, that also tells you something.

2. What was the biggest adjustment for you when you started working here?

Since you will be making a change from another organization that has its own ways of doing things, you want to know what to be prepared for and how much of a change this will be from how you operated at your prior organization. While the people you talk to will come from a variety of prior employers, it will be good to understand what the biggest change was for most people to give you an idea of the degree of change you might experience. Good follow-up question: What were the most glaring examples of this that stood out to you when you first started?

3. How is conflict handled here?

Conflict is a normal, healthy part of business and can be handled constructively. Yet many people avoid it like the plague. The way an organization handles conflict says a lot about its culture. I’ve worked with many “nice” organizations, where conflict isn’t addressed and people smile at each other and agree a lot but don’t voice concerns or disagreement much. While it may be pleasant on the surface, it results in sub-optimal results as well as allows discontent and anxiety to fester. In other organizations, conflict may be handled passive aggressively, or even outright aggressively. How an organization handles conflict is an indicator of how much psychological safety there is. Psychologically safe organizations create the conditions for constructive conflict, where all voices can be heard. Good follow-up question: Can you give me an example of a recent conflict on the team and how it was handled?

4. How do decisions get made?

This question can give you a sense of the concentration of power in the organization or the level of autonomy you might have. Are decisions made only by “the boss” or is decision making decentralized? How are others included or consulted in the process? Or, is everything consensus based, resulting in long, drawn-out, painful processes? Good follow-up question for the hiring manager: What decisions would you look to me to make and which ones would you expect me to come to you with?

5. To what extent are people held accountable for results?

Similar to the conflict question, how are people held accountable? How is underperformance addressed? If under-performers are not held accountable, not only does it affect the team’s performance, but it often damages the team leader’s performance and creates extra work for other team members, as well as damages morale for high performers and increases their risk of leaving the organization. On the flip side, a good follow-up question is: How is good performance recognized?

6. To what extent do people have direct feedback conversations?

Having direct feedback conversations is one of the most pervasive challenges I see leaders and their organizations struggle with. The answer to this question is very much related to the answers to the prior two questions. Do people give each other feedback directly (both positive and improvement feedback), or do they have back channel conversations, venting frustrations to others or even telling the person’s boss? A client once asked me if they should give feedback about someone to the individual or their boss. My response was, “To whom would you prefer someone give feedback about you?” There are many reasons why people don’t have direct feedback conversations, which may include their own limiting beliefs about potentially damaging the relationship, but may also be signs of a lack of safety or low tolerance for potential conflict. Good follow-up question: What do you think most gets in the way of people having direct feedback conversations here?

7. How does the organization view failure?

This question, along with the prior question, can help you assess the degree to which the organization and its people hold a growth mindset. Are mistakes and failure seen as normal and opportunities to learn for the individual, team, and organization—or are they to be avoided at all costs? Do people point fingers and blame, or do they step back and ask “What happened here? How can we do things differently to avoid this going forward?” This question is especially important with companies that tout themselves as being highly innovative— you can’t have innovation without failure, so how well do they walk the talk when it comes to failure? Good follow-up question: What’s an example of where things didn’t turn out well and the team was able to learn from it?

8. How are meetings typically run here?

This question may seem banal, but it says more than you think. Do meetings start and end on time? Do people always default to 30 or 60 minutes, versus shorter alternatives? Do people circulate agendas in advance and have a clear focus for the meeting? Are people multi-tasking, doing email, Slack and other work or are they focused and engaged in the discussion? Some companies have a day of the week with no meetings, others allow a 5-15 minute break between meetings. Norms around meetings can say a lot about what’s expected or tolerated (or supported) in the organization that can also be clues about psychological safety when it comes to things like being able to push back for a shorter meeting time, feeling ok to leave to be on time for another meeting when someone hasn’t managed the time well, or even declining a meeting. Good follow-up question: What are 1-2 things you think the company can do better when it comes to how people run meetings here?

This list of questions is not exhaustive, but it’s a good start. If information is power, you’ll want to be sure to ask the right questions to get the best possible information, so you can make the most informed decisions possible and increase your chances of being successful, whether you are applying for a job or starting a new job.

Rebecca Zucker Forbes 1/6/2021

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