DIY Organizational Ethnography
Perhaps the most common question I am asked by candidates in interviews is “What’s the culture like here?” And I understand why. Accepting a job offer after a few interviews sometimes feels like accepting a marriage proposal after sharing a taxi with someone, and this question has become standard candidate-speak for “What would it really be like to work here? But if you read my last post on organizational culture, you’ll know that I believe taken literally, the question “What’s the culture like here?” is much more complicated than it sounds.
The Amorphous Nature of Culture
The fact is, trying to describe “What the culture is like here” is nearly impossible. That is to say that it’s not really possible to offer an unbiased, holistic and meaningful description of the culture of your organization because you’re deep in it. You lack the necessary perspective. Our individual view of our organization’s culture is heavily influenced by our own position in, and day-to-day experience of, that culture. And if you’ve been at your organization for a while, it gets even harder. You begin to forget that not all organizations operate under the same assumptions that the people at your organization do.
And that’s where we can get ourselves into trouble. Because when we answer the question “What’s the culture like here?” (whether in response to a candidate weighing whether they want to work for us, or as part of a ‘culture change initiative’) it becomes very hard to accurately communicate ‘what it would really be like to work here’, and very easy to overlook basic, and often important, aspects of our culture that we take for granted as universal. And this has real consequences – we inadvertently mislead candidates, who may turn into disillusioned employees, or we embark on misguided change projects that end up bringing attention to their artificiality, magnifying dissonance, and increasing employee cynicism.
We Are But Ants on the Beachball…
So, is it even possible to get a fulsome, unvarnished picture of our organization’s culture? Whether it is to more accurately answer a candidate’s question, or as part of an ‘organizational culture change initiative’, I think that it’s safe to say that it is worth trying…
Think of it this way: you are an ant on a beach ball. To you the world is red and shiny, and a little curved. But your fellow ant in sales would describe it as blue and squishy. To realize that you’re both standing on a beach ball, you’re going to need to combine a bunch of different perspectives to get at the big picture.
Cheap and Cheerful Organizational Ethnography
So, start by writing down some of the words and phrases that you associate with your organization’s culture (note that these also represent your own bias, so be aware not to impose these opinions on others you speak with). Now you need to gather others’ opinions. Some people you’ll likely be able to ask directly. In other cases, it will be advantageous to be a bit more surreptitious (if you interview alongside hiring managers or other employees, listen to what they say when a candidate asks “what’s the culture like here?” and use that as an opening post-interview). Above all, try just to listen. Don’t transmit, don’t provide words, don’t fill in the blanks; just hear and make note of that other perspective.
Questions I find revealing include:
- “How would describe our organization’s culture? What makes you see it that way?”
- “How would describe our organization’s approach to decision making?”
- “Who has power and clout within our organization, even if it’s not formally recognized? Who are their allies? Who is not?”
- “What employee qualities would you say are most prized and rewarded here?”
- “What do you think new hires have been most surprised about when they come here?”
- “How do you think the organization ‘s leadership sees our culture? Do you think that view is accurate?”
Talk to several people at different levels and in different departments. Write it down (this is important. Take a structured approach). Use a spreadsheet if you are so inclined. Compare.
- How consistent are these perspectives?
- What do they have in common? Where do they diverge?
- How close are they to the ‘official’ version of what your organization’s culture is (you know, the one that is advanced by senior management)?
- What terms or themes come up most often?
- Did anyone express cynicism about the dissonance between ‘official culture’ and their own perception of culture?
- Are there commonalities between the perspectives of more senior employees? Employees in a certain department? Of a certain gender?
I guarantee the results will be interesting, and will highlight the complexity and diversity of your employees’ experience of your organizational culture. And maybe a fancy management consultant would scoff at this approach as a hack-job, but it won’t cost you $250 an hour, so screw them.
Image Credit: Zach Dischner via Flickr Creative Commons