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7 Ways to Find the Right Workplace Culture for You

October 4, 2019

What if choosing a new job was like putting on the Sorting Hat at Harry Potter's Hogwarts? The feel of the hat material on your brow is a little uncomfortable as you place it on your head for the first time. You close your eyes as you focus on what is happening in your mind, trying to shut out the onlooking crowd. The Hat begins to speak its thoughts as it senses your deepest desires, your personality, your patterns of behavior, your motivations. It probes your thoughts for new preferences that run contrary to your past behaviors. It then works through how your deepest motivations align with the purposes of different companies, how your skills are unique and poise you for success in a certain role. It considers companies where you would definitely not enjoy working because the work would be uninteresting, or the people too boring, or the attire too formal. After a few minutes of searching and talking out possible solutions, it finally announces a decision! This is your new job!   

Like the elements that the Sorting Hat magically senses as it makes its final decision, every person has deeply held motivations, values and goals under the surface- and so do organizations. Like the different houses at Hogwarts, each company is unique in the way it expects people to work, think and behave- whether they know it or not. In the business world, we call this culture. "Culture is somewhat like an organization's personality," says Dr. Alex Bolinger, Professor of Management at Idaho State University's (ISU) College of Business. Functioning like an individual's personality, an organization's culture reflects the deeply held assumptions and values of the members of that organization. There may not be a clearly stated creed for how all people within an organization will behave, but there are expectations in place no matter the organization.  And if you want to be successful in your own company or organization, you had better know what those expectations are if expect to succeed. 


Finding the Right Culture for You

Unfortunately for us muggles, there is no Sorting Hat to tell us the ideal fit for the next place to work, and unfortunately some of us have made the wrong choice. So what happens if you end up in the wrong culture?  You may find yourself not fitting in, your values are challenged, or you find it difficult to communicate with team members and get your point across. Or perhaps you find yourself getting passed up for growth opportunities and promotions. As Bolinger points out, “finding a good fit between your work values and the culture of your organization has a significant impact on your happiness and success at work," but even more than that, about half of a person's job satisfaction comes from how well they think they fit with their organization's culture. That's a startling figure. 

According to ISU College of Business Management Professor, Dr. Tyler Burch, a person who doesn't fit with the culture is also likely to be less productive and lack access to organizational resources such as advice and special help from others. Because those who fit in well are accepted into a "one of us" mentality, anyone else who doesn't fit the mold will likely find themselves lacking the support and help that others get more easily. Think of it as a wolf pack, where each member takes their place as an accepted member and they all look out for each other. So, if a lone wolf tries to assimilate and is not accepted by the pack members… let's just say the road will not be easy.

As you are searching for the right workplace culture for you, all of this would be easy to assess if organizations were able to clearly articulate the elements of their culture and if they were consistent all of the time, but those occurrences are rare. Going back to the idea that much of an organization's culture cannot be clearly articulated and is based on underlying assumptions, how can you find out what an organization values? Say you are evaluating a handful of job offers- how do you evaluate which company would be a better fit for you without Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat? The following are a few pieces of advice that Bolinger and Burch gave based on their experience and research. 

Tip #1: Don't ask them

"If you ask a potential employer about their workplace culture, they will usually talk about it very generally (and often unrealistically positively), so that's not a great way to figure out what it is actually like to work there," says Bolinger. Just like if someone asked you to describe your personality in great detail, you might struggle unless you had recently taken a personality test. Particularly if the workplace culture is weak and inconsistent, you may hear a lot of great things about the company in the interview, only to find that what was said is not actually what happens. According to Burch, this situation often leads to an "open door" or a rotating door where people leave as quickly as they come because they are disenchanted by the reality of a misrepresented culture. More on inconsistency in rule number four. A good resource to see what the culture is like at a company or what people’s experiences were like is Glassdoor which is a website that can give you everything from salaries to employee experiences and much more. This can especially be more useful if you don’t know anyone or have any contacts within the company.

Tip # 2: Ask for stories

Because asking directly is likely to be unfruitful, Bolinger offers a better approach which is to "ask current employees and managers at the company to 'tell you a story about something that happens in this organization that doesn't happen anywhere else,'" quoting a study conducted by Dr. Adam Grant, Professor of Management at the Wharton School of Business. A concrete example is more likely to tell you something tangible that you can use to detect what the organization values. Then evaluate that evidence against your own values. 

Tip #3: Pay attention to the details

Almost any interaction that you have with a potential employer can tell you something about their culture. For example, how do they schedule their interview process? Are they very clear about their expectations and provide ample material to help you prepare for the interview? Or are they tight lipped about the information that they share with you? This might tell you how transparent they are likely to be in other aspects of your job. 

According to Burch, a company's layout can also give clues about what that organization values. For example, if you are able to take a tour of a prospective employer's building, do you see doors closed with people's noses at their computer screens, or are people wearing shorts and meeting together at tables that are in the open? Even here in the College of Business, what does the layout of a classroom tell you about what happens in that space? No one student chair is in a position that appears to be more important than the other, giving the message that each student is equally valued. They all face the same direction with a whiteboard or podium at the front of the room, which might give you the impression that there will be an authority figure presenting information. Consider also the traditional boardroom, with one seat at the head of a long table. You might guess that the person sitting in the head chair maintains the highest authority in the room, perhaps flanked on either side by the next highest ranking officials.

Paying close attention to every detail will help you detect the underlying assumptions that may not be clearly stated. According to Burch, culture has three layers, only the top of which is observable, which Dr. Edgar Schein, former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, calls "artifacts,”. Looking into these observable behaviors is the only way to discover the underlying values and assumptions, which are the bottom two layers. 

Tip #4: Find out what they reward

"What you reward is what you value," says Burch, referring to the way that management rewards its employees. Referring to the somewhat recent Wells Fargo scandal, if the workers who meet a quota for the number of newly opened accounts per month are being continuously rewarded, and if the pressure to meet that quota is great enough, then employees will respond by meeting that standard by whatever means necessary, in this case by opening bogus accounts under the names of unsuspecting customers. Because of the power of the reward system to elicit reactionary behavior, the gatekeeper of an organization's culture is typically its reward system. That is why it is important to find out what is rewarded. If the actions that are rewarded don't match your work values or if you feel they are unrealistic for your capabilities, you may end up in a situation where you find yourself doing things that you never thought you would do. Take it from Mr. Wells.  

Tip #5: Inconsistency is a red flag

"You know that you are in a strong culture when you ask several different people and they each independently tell you the same story (or very similar stories) about the workplace culture…. Be on the lookout for organizations where the stories don't seem to line up," says Bolinger. If you get an inconsistent message from different people within the organization, you may be in line for an ambiguous and confusing workplace. According to Burch, ambiguity is created when an organization's stated values don't match its practiced behaviors (the old "practice what you preach" mentality), which creates confusion for the worker who wants to know what they must do to be successful. If they are following all the stated rules but not being rewarded as much as the people who are not following the rules, certainly confusion and even animosity will erode that person's job satisfaction. Burch also relayed a personal experience where he got inconsistent messages about the values of a potential employer as he interviewed with different people within the company. This rose a red flag for him, and he ultimately decided not to take the job because of it.

On the other hand, a strong and consistent culture can make life easier for everyone. As an employee, you will know exactly what behaviors are expected of you, making it easier to make daily decisions that affect the business. You will also know what is rewarded and exactly how to get the rewards that you seek, whether that be a performance bonus or a promotion. Another benefit is that a strong culture can help you "self-select" in or out: you should be able to easily see whether you will fit in or not if the culture is obvious. If you can judge that you are not a great fit, the sooner you can pull out of the interview process and devote your time to finding a better workplace for you. If you can see yourself loving the environment, the better you can make your case for why you would be a great fit for the organization. 

Tip #6: Know thyself 

So you have done your research to find out what the organization values and what it rewards, but how do you evaluate whether what you see matches with your own personal values? Luckily there are some non-magical resources to help: the Idaho State University Career Center offers a battery of tests that can help you find out more about one of your favorite subjects: you! Just ask and they can help you with a number of different personality, aptitude, and interest assessments such as the Myers-Briggs personality test and the Strong Interest Inventory. 

If you're not yet keen on stretching your legs to reach the fourth floor of the museum, you can also check out their online resources for career planning and personal assessments on their website. In particular, the Focus 2 system provides the following free assessments after a quick registration and login: your work interests, personality, your preference for leisure (which can help you find a good work-life balance), your values, and your work skills. According to Burch, no one assessment will tell you what you are good at and what you value, but you should be able to identify some trends after looking into a few different analyses. Armed with this information, look for jobs and organizations that value what you value. 

Tip #7: There's more to life than base pay

According to Burch, so many students fail to look beyond the basic details of a job such as the base salary and benefits package. But there is so much more that needs to be considered! Because you will be spending such a large portion of your life at work, you need to think about how happy you will be working at that organization, how easily you will be able to fulfill your personal goals while a member of that organization, and how excited you are about the work itself. If you are fulfilled, happy, and excited at work, your productivity will be higher and you are more likely to be rewarded, creating a virtuous upward cycle. Even if you take a lower salary to work at an organization that is a better cultural fit for you, the dividends in work satisfaction could yield rich rewards in the end. 

Turning the Tides of Culture: Capture the Flags

While the points above are geared toward finding a workplace culture that works for you, hopefully you were able to evaluate your own workplace if you are currently working. Are you in a strong or a weak culture? Do you fit well with the established culture? No matter your current organization, there will always be improvements to be made, but this is easier said than done. According to Burch, "culture is extremely hard to change," but there are some tools that can help if you find yourself with the desire and influence to do so. For starters, find out where the red flags of inconsistency are; what stated values are not being practiced and rewarded? Likewise, what practices are being rewarded that run contrary to the organization's stated values? Then look for the reasons that this may be happening. The more knowledge you have on the exact points of incongruence, the better position you will be in to work toward change. 

It Takes One

You don't have to be a manager to make a change – what matters more is the consistent example of just one person. According to Bolinger, just one person who consistently cooperates with their team and exhibits behaviors of trust can gradually change a culture and "dramatically [increase] the level of trust of the entire group," citing a 2008 study on organizational culture by Dr. Mark Weber and Dr. Keith Murnighan, Professors of Management at the University of Toronto and Northwestern University, respectively. So let your unwavering voice be heard and hold on while your team follows suit. You just might find that you have more of an impact than you thought.