The pandemic has put so many parts of the work experience under a microscope, and the culture of the organization is no exception. It is critically important to our performance and the fulfillment that we get or don’t get from our work.
When we were in the workplace before Covid, the culture was more apparent. Culture is more palpable in person. But now, since many of us work from home, the culture can be harder to discern, and you will need to take an intentional approach to understand if this is right for you, if you are working in your current role, and if you are re- hire or interview for a new opportunity and decide if an organization is right for you.
The key to corporate culture is fit – there are certainly some things that are not negotiable for a healthy culture – but a lot of it is in the eye of the beholder. The culture must align with the market and the results that a company is trying to achieve, and it must also be relevant to employees. A coworker’s heaven could be another coworker’s hell, depending on each of our unique needs.
How do you know if you are part of the most suitable culture? What are some culture signals that you should pay attention to or ask questions about if you are considering joining a new business? What are the indicators of your current culture? Here are seven ways to determine culture.
One of the first things to look for in your culture – or in a potential new culture – is direction.
- The lesson. Successful cultures have a vision, a mission, strong values, and clear guidance from leaders on where they are going and how they will get there. There is room for participation, but also clarity on the way forward for the business. Is there a lot of transparency in terms of the information you can access? Do you feel a bright future for the company? Is there one you want to be a part of?
- Measurements. Pay attention to how the work is evaluated. Does the company measure what matters most or is it caught up in the minutiae? Also consider your personal perspective: do the measurements match the way you want to work? For example, if bonuses are paid based on team performance and you thrive on working alone, you might be frustrated.
- Leadership. Leaders provide clear signals about the culture because they have been rewarded (hired or promoted) for the way they interact and generate results. In general, do they demonstrate the types of behaviors that you enjoy? Even if you don’t agree with every leader every time, overall, are these people you respect and want to follow?
- Outside view. Research how the business stays connected to customers and the market. Does the organization stay on top of what competitors are doing, changing market conditions, and customer needs? Successful companies will always feel the external environment, in order to be able to respond and guide their employees effectively.
Within an organization, decisions are constant. They can be tiny – whether to raise a point in a meeting – or important – how to handle market change depending on the pandemic. But big or small, decision-making practices are a lens on culture.
- Speed. How fast can the business pivot? How carefully does the company view changes? In what ways does the business balance the need for agility with the need for deliberate action? The most successful crops will be fast and adaptable, without sacrificing care or consideration for key variables affecting results.
- Uncertainty. How does the company deal with ambiguity? It’s rare to have 100% certainty in decision making, and chances are, if you are 100% sure, you may have missed an opportunity. Is the company able to move forward with the right amount of evidence and regularly make thoughtful but daring strategic choices?
- Treat. Investigate the extent to which the business is guided by policies, practices and processes. Ideally, there are enough guidelines to make things efficient, but not so many rules that they become limiting (think: ball and chain). Does the business have a hard time getting it right the first time around and then has to back down? Or is the company suffering from analysis paralysis? Cultures are most successful when they have processes that support performance – getting it right the first time – and avoiding the trap of inaction of striving for perfection.
- Participation. Look at how people are involved in the decision making. Are decisions made at the top and informed by the contributions and ideas of the organization? Are people empowered to make decisions in their area of expertise or at their hierarchical level? Is information shared so people can make the best possible decisions?
The most effective cultures are not characterized by the absence of conflict. Instead, they welcome differences of opinion and deal with them well. This dynamic is important to consider.
- Disagreements. Hear how the business deals with conflict. Do conflicts stay focused on tasks or problems, and not on people or personalities? Are conflicts managed with appropriate transparency, rather than with hidden agendas or back door channels? Even when the outlook is different, do people have basic respect for each other?
- New ideas. Does the company invite differences of opinion to learn and seek the best solution? Or is it stifling dissent? As the saying goes: “A boat that goes nowhere does not make waves. The new suggestions can be overwhelming for existing processes, but they are essential for a business to learn and grow. A company that welcomes different or difficult contributions has the mark of a great culture.
When you join a business, you will be charged with a number of responsibilities. Ideally, you will also see a career path and lots of opportunities within the company. Development is a key element here.
- Formal learning. Look to see if the company has any formal apprenticeship programs available. Are there succession planning and plenty of business-driven and self-guided growth opportunities? These are the characteristics of a culture where you are more likely to thrive, a culture where you can also develop your current talents and new skills.
- Informal development. Look for a company that incorporates learning into its approaches to work. Do colleagues share information and advice? Is there a penchant for openness so if you are having difficulty you can seek help and coaching?
- The network. Does the company encourage you to develop your network and social capital, so that you can seek advice and input? Are there opportunities to have a mentor – formal or informal?
When looking for a cultural match, it’s important to see people who look like you and those who don’t.
- Colleagues. Watch for the diversity you see. Are there people of all kinds of backgrounds, orientations and abilities? Cultures are stronger when they have more diversity of people and thought. Also watch how people present themselves: are they on the defensive or do they always feel the need to prove themselves? Or are they able to fully contribute based on their own uniqueness?
- The working life. Are people open to their lives outside of work– share small details because they feel safe? Are people able to adapt their schedules or work patterns so that they can fully contribute to work and have a full life?
- Relationships. What is the nature of people’s relationships with each other? Are they united? Are they having fun, enjoying their jobs and being upbeat? Do they socialize during lunch or outside of work? While the most effective way to build relationships is to work together on tasks (not just spend social time), you can discern a lot about a culture based on how much people enjoy being together.
You work or join a business because of the work you are going to do, so how is it done?
- The work. Consider how the work is done and if there is support for a range of work. How well are people collaborating and does everyone have a voice (even if not everyone has a vote)? How long do people have to concentrate? Do people have support for socializing or recharging their batteries during the work day? Do people have the tools and technology they need to work effectively, wherever they work?
- The team. Watch how the teams work together. Do members share common goals and come together in the same direction to get the job done (rather than competing against each other). Do team members share burdens and successes? You’ll learn about the culture through your team’s experience, so make sure you understand if teams support members, provide feedback, and bring out the best in everyone.
- In law. While you are working from home at the moment, the workplace will be a part of your experience as well. If you haven’t seen it already, ask for a tour and see if it’s welcoming, stimulating, and supporting a range of work. Is it a place you want to be for hours of your life? Workplaces should be invigorating, attractive and also safe. So look for cultures that value the place as part of a holistic experience.
- Responsibility and recognition. Successful cultures are places where people behave brilliantly and are recognized and rewarded for their great work. Additionally, constructive cultures empower people, realizing that people want to work with others who are engaged and contributing.
Finally, pay attention to how the company handles difficulties. The pandemic has been among the most stressful and difficult times ever. Hard times reflect the character of individuals, and so do business. If the company survives, adapts and serves its customers, employees and stakeholders during this difficult time, it demonstrates a positive culture in action.
Culture is defined as the norms, values and assumptions within an organization and “the way things are done here”. It is the most important competitive advantage for companies because it attracts people, it shapes behavior and it retains talent. You will join a company based on a great culture, and it will affect whether you are fulfilled while you are there and whether you stay there. These are essential reasons for making culture a point of interest and attention when choosing to engage or re-engage.