By Axiom Consulting Partners

In recent years, organizational culture has made itself known as a driver of results.  Increasingly, companies are realizing that achieving their objectives requires having a culture aligned with what they are trying to achieve, in the way that they want to achieve it.  A 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research study­­* showed that 92% of CEOs believe culture has a direct impact on their organization’s value.

How well do you understand the culture in your own organization? When asked to describe your culture, how do you respond?  Often, we talk about the formality – or lack thereof – in approaching leadership, attitudes towards vacation, dress policies, or values as stated on company websites.  While somewhat helpful, those answers will not satisfactorily explain what it is really like to work at your organization.

As a first step to truly understanding your culture, consider how you would answer 6 unorthodox questions that may not have come up in the usual polite and professional conversations.  When the answers to these questions become clear, you can correctly evaluate the current state of culture and determine whether that culture is conducive to your goals.

1.   What would be forgiven here but not elsewhere? 

Companies can vary greatly in their attitudes toward traditional norms and which norms can be broken as long as the most important work is completed.  In some companies, for example, deadlines are more like suggestions: it’s OK to have something turned in a few days late as long the product is impeccable.  In others, everything must be on time, but iterations are expected.  Eschewing of the normal chain of command may be permissible if the result for a client is worthwhile.  Some offices place value on employees having lots of facetime in the office, while others don’t care whether they see you in person or not, as long as you are responsive and available.  Opinions can also vary greatly on acceptable attire, late arrival, use of headphones, etc.  This balance of what is acceptable and what is not, especially when compared with other offices, is a useful descriptor of office values and culture.

2.   How would I win a debate here?

To answer this question is to define what type of evidence carries the most weight in your organization.  To prove your point, are numbers necessary?  Moreover, are numbers sufficient?  Do you need to convince others and build coalitions?  Do you need to bring evidence of past events that would prove you correct?  Understanding what needs to be amassed to earn credibility tells you how the group values different types of information and makes decisions.

3.   Who gets promoted—and why?

More than simply explaining who does well, this question gets to the heart of who is earmarked to lead and put his or her own stamp on the way the company works.  Is it individuals who develop business, lead others, demonstrate work ethic, build an internal network, or obtain higher education—or is it something else entirely?  Clearly defining common characteristics of those who are promoted will help to codify success metrics at your company.

4.   When was the last time the company changed how it does something important?

The history of change at your company is a proxy for the company’s ability to be agile.  This question asks about change in how things are done as opposed to change to what is done because even companies that change their offerings can approach development of those offerings in the same way, time and again.  If you see lack of change in processes, consider what the cause may be.  Is it respect for tradition?  Is it bureaucracy?  Perhaps simply stagnation?  Diagnosis of the cause can also guide successful navigation of company culture.

5.   Who will be willing to help me with something outside of their immediate job description, and why will they do it?

This question works on a couple of levels.  Who will be willing to help can directly speak to the level of cooperation or competitiveness between coworkers.  The more collaborative and supportive the culture, the more likely peers will go out of their way to help each other.  In addition, superiors being willing to guide you demonstrates connectedness between ranks in the company.

Why individuals would help you speaks to the benefits that employees receive from helping others, signifying how things may be done informally within the organization.  Help may come from sheer goodwill, an opportunity to network, expectation of future repayment, reputation boost, or ability to learn something new, among other possibilities.

6.   What will people be talking about late into happy hour?

When removed from the office setting, individuals feel freer to discuss what they see happening without the confines of having to behave professionally.  A drink or two kicks this freedom up a notch.  Discussion topics may unearth issues that are inherently known but may be avoided in the professional office setting.  These topics can add color to answers to the prior questions.

In addition, the out-of-office setting is the perfect showcase for the types of relationships formed at the office.  Do individuals discuss work or personal topics?  Are they talking in terms of opportunities or complaints?  Would you see peers talking to peers or interaction between levels?  This setting is invaluable to conducting a deep, honest dive into the inner workings of a company, the kind of people it employs and the relationships it fosters.  If finding employees in such a setting is unthinkable, that is valuable information as well.

Why do these questions matter?

Our usual polite and professional questions lead to polite and professional answers which fall short of conveying the experience of a workplace.  While it is most likely not advisable to talk in terms of these questions externally, knowing how you would answer the questions for yourself will help to crystallize the characteristics of your organization.  That solid comprehension is a great place to start when you want to assess, evaluate and possibly change the culture of your workplace.


*Source: Graham, J. R., Harvey, C. R., Popadek, J. & Rojgopal, S.  (2017).  Corporate Culture: Evidence from the Field.  The National Bureau of Economic Research.

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