How to Avoid Working in a Dysfunctional Organization | TechWell

How to Avoid Working in a Dysfunctional Organization

A company where I once worked could have been the poster child for a dysfunctional culture. Blaming and finger-pointing were the default behaviors when things went wrong—and lots went wrong.

But the fault was always the other party’s. Rarely did anyone say, “Gee, we really blew it that time,” or “Maybe we could have handled that better.” Those involved with a problem rarely got together to figure out how to avoid a recurrence.

Relationships in this company were adversarial, not just between IT and its customers, but even within IT. Rampant rumors and an us/them mentality—two of the signs of a toxic organization—were commonplace. In time, even the good folks (and I like to think I was one such) sometimes slipped into the same blaming mode and became part of the problem. The only option was to leave, which I did.

Before you accept a position in a new company, do what I didn’t do back then: Try to learn about its culture—its norms, values, and practices. To do that, ask permission to talk to several employees in different positions and at different levels, including (most importantly) those you’ll be working directly with.

Questions that may reveal the inner workings of the organization include: How would you describe your corporate culture? What are the most common complaints employees in the organization (or in this department or on this team) make? What most pleases you and what most upsets you about working here? What are one or two things you’d change about this organization if you could? In thinking about a project or work effort that failed, what stands out in your mind?

Listen to what people say in response to these questions—and how they say it. People in a dysfunctional organization may excel at spinning their responses to make the organization sound angelic. So, observe: Do these people seem forthcoming in responding to your questions? Do they wince in response to certain questions? Do they hem and haw, as if trying to decide what to disclose? Do they seem enthusiastic about their workplace or worn down? Do they seem stressed?

It can be especially valuable to interview two or three people together and to observe how they interact in responding: Again, do they seem forthcoming? Do they make glancing eye contact with each other before saying anything? Do they pause just a little too long before responding? Do they exhibit nervous laughter in response to certain questions?

Even if everything you can glean about the corporate culture makes it seem like a desirable place to work, it could turn out not to be. If your instincts tell you to stay away, heed those instincts and look elsewhere.

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