Friday, July 11, 2008

Five Ways You Can Discern Organizational Culture: Before You Take Your Next Job!

For the thousands of you who read my blog (ok, maybe not thousands), you're aware of my interest in organizational culture. I've blogged about it several times. Because organizational culture is still looked at as the red-headed stepchild of the "harder" and generally more quantifiable aspects of management and leadership, most senior leaders overlook it in the hiring process.

In this blog you'll discover five ways you can discern organizational culture both as a employer and as a potential employee. If you're the former, your unbiased assessment of the following questions may reveal characteristics of your organization that you never knew; if you're the latter, getting concrete responses to these five issues will prevent you from taking a job in which you will clash with the prevailing organizational culture.

I've done it twice and the inevitable results are painful, both professionally and personally. By the time you're in an organization and you realize your professional attributes and personality clash with the prevailing culture, your bosses likely have arrived at that point long before you... And they'll sacrifice you at the altar of their organizational culture rather than change the culture.

It takes great courage and a long time to change organizational culture; most CEOs and COOs lack that courage (and the knowledge); in this challenging economic climate they certainly do not have the luxury of time. After all, it's far more convenient to get rid of the individual who doesn't fit the culture rather than change the culture.

And yet, with resources so precious, and so many resources devoted to finding, hiring and training employees who will positively contribute to the organization from day one, both employers and potential employees would be wise to take into account the following five ways to determine whether or not a potential employee is a "good fit" for the organization.

My academic background (I have a Master's in Systems Management [Organizational Behavior]) and practical experience dealing with the repercussions of not accurately reading organizational culture during interviews and in the early stages of new jobs (or projects), makes me I believe uniquely qualified to blog authoritatively about the importance of recognizing organizational culture.

1) “Bull in a China Shop”: A job seeker concerned with determining whether or not (and to what extent) he or she will fit into the target company’s organizational culture should understand two things: His/her personality (are they a “bull”?) and the decision making structure/system of the target organization (is it a "China shop"?).

Questions that may help determine this include:

a. What structure/system does the organization have in which I am supposed to do my job? Is the organizational hierarchy flat or steep?

b. How are internal conflicts handled? Ask for specific and recent examples. Note facial expressions, body language and the words used to describe those conflicts. Conflict resolution reveals much about organizational culture.

2) Pre-evaluate your prospective boss: You're going to spend a lot of time working with and answering to your boss. Just as professional sports teams intensively evaluate their top draft choices, so must you carefully evaluate your prospective boss. What can you find out in a one or two hour interview?

Here are some questions you should ask. Be sure to ask these of both your boss and your boss’ superiors and subordinates.

a. Is the boss passionate/motivated about the work/the organization? How is that passion/motivation reflected?

b. Does the boss bring an infectious sense of energy and teamwork to the department/team? How responsive is the boss (by email, in person, voicemail, etc.)?

c. Does the boss motivate, inspire and educate? Is he/she affable or aloof? Does he/she micromanage? What is his/her management style, and what specific examples can you use to describe how the boss manifests that style?

3) The organization's decision making process: How an organization makes decisions reveals much about the character of relationships and flow of work in the organization. To understand how the target organization makes decisions, ask the following questions:

a. How many levels does one have to go through to get decisions?

b. How are decisions made on a new initiative? Is it death by committee, "ready-fire-aim" or something in between? Before you get the answers, you should know the decision making process that best suits your personality. Conflicting decision making styles are a leading reason why employer-employee relationships turn bad.

c. How does the organization green light new initiatives? Ask for specific and recent examples.

4) Organizational responsiveness: When opportunities present themselves, is the target organization quick to seize opportunities or slow to react? Is it a slow-footed or a fast-footed culture? Most non-profit organizations and associations are the former; most newer companies and start-ups are the latter.

If you thrive in a dynamic, unpredictable environment; if you make decisions based on 60% fact and 40% instinct; if the machinations of Boards of Directors and Committees cause you to grind your teeth, save yourself a lot of professional and personal angst: Don't take a job at a non-profit or an association.

5) Notice little indicators of organizational behavior: It's true that the devil is in the details. An important part of organizational culture is organizational behavior. As you walk through the hallways for your next interview, note how most staff dress. At the most senior levels, note especially how your boss dresses: Is he/she fastidious, vain, slovenly, well-groomed?

Always ask to go to the bathroom. Is it clean? Besides giving you a little break from your interview schedule, use the time you're unescorted to look subtly at the common areas of the organization. Are they clean? Do they appear used? Do people congregate in the common areas? Are voices subdued or excited? Lots of movement generally indicates lots of activity and interaction.

a. Is it a cube world or an office world? If the former, are the cubes personalized? Are there pictures of family/pets/etc.? If the latter, are doors open? Is there a lot of traffic in the hallways, break rooms, etc. Do people appear to like each other, or do they pass in the hallways without saying hello?

As a potential employee, ask these questions and you'll get concrete answers upon which to base your decision. As an employer, try to see these issues from the perspective of your potential new employee. Set aside your ego and truly examine your organizational culture. You may find the results of your examination reveal flaws--or strengths--about which you were not previously aware.

Employers, don't make the mistake of trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. The candidate you love on paper may not fit your organizational culture, and everyone will suffer when the inevitable clash comes.

Employees, carefully and diligently seek answers to the five aforementioned issues. Ask the tough questions in your interviews. Do your career and your ego a favor: Understand the organization's culture and assess whether or not you'll fit.

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