How to Ask about Culture

In a recent post, I wrote about how corporate culture may be the most important factor in your success on the job. If your personality is a great fit for the way the team or company thinks, it’s likely that you’ll be able to succeed and enjoy your work. Personality assessments like the Culture Index can help you and your manager understand why things are working (or not) and may be able to help you communicate better and become more effective. Even without a formal tool, you can learn about company culture during the interview, and up your chances of getting a job you’ll look forward to every day.

First, we’ll assume that you actually understand yourself and how you make decisions, manage people and communicate on the job. You’ll need to both understand and embrace your strong personality traits for this concept to work. If you’re willing to bend yourself into whatever shape it takes to get the job, you’re not ready for the idea of interviewing the company to see if it’s a good fit for you.

There are some general questions that are great for understanding corporate culture. One is: “Tell me about a typical day on the job in this position.” Listen carefully for clues about things like the level of detail required in the job, the number of social interactions you can expect in a day, or how the company views accuracy and deadlines. For instance, I know that I am a big picture person; great with ideas, but not interested in implementing detailed plans. If I would have to spend my day poring over contracts to look for compliance issues, I’d be miserable. I’d need to know in advance how much of my time would be spent on those kinds of duties.

Ask follow up questions to verify your assumptions: “It sounds like a fast-paced, hectic job. You must have a group of high-energy people who thrive on pressure.” “It sounds like I’d be working on several projects with several different managers. How often do teams get together to measure progress and work out issues?” The answers will help you determine if your energy and communication style will be assets or liabilities.

Another important cultural issue is supervision and management style. Here are some questions that will help determine fit: Tell me about your management style. How and how often do you prefer to communicate with staff? How autonomous do you want your team to be? What kinds of things would you want to be informed about, and what would you want me to handle on my own? Look for signs that your future boss is a micromanager or extremely risk averse and how she prefers to communicate. Figure out how that fits in with the way you work.

Behavior based interviewing is a style of interview that sets up scenarios and asks you to respond with how you’d act. It’s a tool you can use to your advantage as well. Here’s a great example: “If I had a situation where I can either ship a partial order on time or ship the full order late, how would you want me to handle it?” Here’s another? “I’m used to small, flexible team environments, and ABC company is larger and more structured. If another manager were to ask me to help out with some administrative work, would you want me to clear it with you first?”

Asking what kinds of people are successful in the role nets the most revealing responses. When answering, a manager will often list the qualities of their dream candidate. “We need someone who is great with people and puts the customer first.” “We need flexible team players who don’t mind covering for each other when things get crazy.” “We need people who can catch every mistake on a client contract before it’s signed.”

If that’s not you, it’s better to know before you accept the offer.





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