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DIY Organizational Ethnography

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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

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12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mike Hackett #

    Jane, great post! This is exactly the sort of material that you should post to our LinkedIn group: AWE.

    January 9, 2013
  2. Really good questions. Having spent a lot of time in industries that were acquiring and merging, I saw so many times where the “deal doers” came back and said, “wow, their culture is so like ours – this will be a breeze”, and then the smallest detail derails the process right off the bat. In most cases, it was the loss of autonomy, and the start of bureaucracy that went sideways. Love your comment about cynicism – look at people’s eyes when you ask the questions – sometimes that says volumes.

    January 9, 2013
    • I always look forward to your comments Carol- thank you. I’m interested to get your thoughts on cynicism as a response to clumsy change efforts. I get the sense (completely anecdotally) that there is more cynicism in the workplace towards obvious efforts by organizations to influence their culture(s). Do you find that this is the case? And if so, do you think that it is more of a generational thing, or just a product of the times we live in (corporate scandals, lays offs etc.), and/or something else? I’m curious to get another perspective on this…

      January 10, 2013
  3. Interesting question, Jane. I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of organizations and I don’t see cynicism as generational. I do think our corporate dirty laundry has probably stoked the fire a bit on cynicism. But what I have found is the biggest driver of cynicism is when the words and the actions of the organization don’t match. I’ve been in organizations that had some pretty bad news to share, and shared it very well, and everyone understood. I’ve been in others where the bad news was framed as if it was good news, and it worked once, twice, maybe even three times. But employees are pretty smart and they get when they’re being fed something that isn’t true. In my opinion, that is the origin of cynicism.

    By the way, am enjoying your blog.

    January 10, 2013
    • Indy Neogy #

      Another vote for Carol’s view here. I’m a culture consultant (although I don’t charge 250 an hour) and my experience is that a mismatch between words and actions is the number one cause of cynicism. Really, it’s a rational response to be cynical when trust has been broken.

      I like your list of questions, but I would put the case that an outsider’s view can be very useful. As you say: “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.” We all have blind spots about cultures we are part of and a fresh pair of eyes can make a real difference. And there are also tools out there that can help us get beyond individual biases…

      January 10, 2013
      • Hi Indy, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I definitely don’t disagree that outsider’s view can be useful (as long as they don’t also subscribe to sloppy thinking on culture), but the fact is that a lot of organizations can’t or won’t invest the resources necessary to bring one in. Given that reality, my hope would be to spur some critical thought and rigour in how internal folks (HR or management) thinks, talks and approaches organizational culture. This is definitely a cheap and cheerful approach- I don’t mean to imply that it’s the equivalent of hiring a knowledgable, educated and experienced outside advisor- but for many organizations cheap is what’s on the menu…

        January 14, 2013
      • Indy Neogy #

        My thought is that if you can’t afford to employ an external, maybe you can do a swap with someone in a similar position in a different industry? You take a couple of days looking at their organisation and they return the favour? Just to get a different angle on things.

        January 17, 2013
  4. Indy is right about using a third party to look at culture, unless the organization and leadership are mature enough to listen well, ask good questions and really want to hear the answer. Those organizations can self monitor and correct. Most others need a bit of outside help.

    January 10, 2013
  5. Have you ever considered about adding a little bit more than just your articles?
    I mean, what you say is important and all. But think of if you
    added some great images or video clips to give your posts
    more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with images and videos,
    this blog could undeniably be one of the best in its
    niche. Fantastic blog!

    August 29, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. 6 Questions That Reveal What A Company’s Culture Is Really Like | The Las Angeles Times
  2. 6 Questions That Reveal What A Company’s Culture Is Really Like | New Yerk Times

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