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New Job? Here's How to Read Your Organization's Culture

A team fist bumps over a table.

In your first few weeks at a new job, you’re going to learn everything you need to know about HR policies, workflow expectations, and priorities (hopefully). But one thing you probably won’t get a handle on quite as quickly is your new organization’s culture. You won’t learn it from reading a memo, and a misunderstanding organizational culture could hold you back in countless ways.

Organizational culture essentially defines the feel of an organization—its norms, beliefs, habits, and assumptions. It’s sort of like the pulse of an organization, the unspoken-but-felt descriptor, the thing that either makes you want to join, or makes you question why you’re there.

Why organizational culture matters

For most people, an organization’s culture is as important as pay, vacation time, level of passion for your work, and opportunities for growth. It helps you figure out the identity of your workplace, and how and where you fit. It also tends to define how happy and supported you are likely to feel in your job.

If you find yourself in a place with a culture of strong leadership, there will be a lot of room to get the work done. The right balance between structured leadership and room for autonomy gives folks more of a chance to do the job they were hired to do.

If the culture is less than ideal, all of the things that go along with that—stress, fatigue, in-fighting—can serve to weaken the chance for staff to feel good about the organization’s mission and purpose.

How to gauge your organization’s culture

1. Listen

When you listen to all voices in an organization, you’ll quickly notice if there are underlying, shared values and ideals held by your new coworkers. Are differences welcomed and embraced in your organization? What happens when different ideals or values are shared? What happens when they aren’t?

Learning to listen is a skill worth building and using active listening at work can really help! Listening, in meetings or over a cup of coffee with coworkers, can help you identify the holders of cultural knowledge at your organization, or find the person who could support you as you take on new challenges.

2. Watch

Those first few days of training can be tiring for everyone involved. Your brain is processing so much new information and your coworkers and supervisors have likely stepped away from their own work to focus on helping you get started.

Now is the time where watching can be really helpful. Try to observe with the goal of answering the following questions:

  • Who is invited to important meetings?
  • How is information passed along informally?
  • How are working relationships built?

As we move through our days, we are constantly picking up on and sending out nonverbal cues. A great way to learn about a group is simply to watch. As you practice this skill, you can start to figure out where you fit in at your new job and where you can be most useful.

3. Question

Depending on your position within the organization and on your goals, it may take you a year or more to fully understand the nuances of your workplace, but it’s important to constantly ask questions along the way. Question yourself—do you notice that you’re quick to make assumptions? Are there ways to learn to pause?

The ability to learn from the wisdom in the room will be critical to your success.

Pay attention to whether there’s someone who wants to give you the dirt on the organization, or trash leadership. In a new job you want a chance to come to your own conclusions, and everyone has a different experience. And if you do meet this person right away, don’t despair! Try reviewing these tips for dealing with difficult personalities at work.

Who are the folks that seem to hold a view of the big picture of your organization? Find time to sit down with them for the sole purpose of hearing their thoughts on the impact of their work. What do they see as some of the major challenges? Where do they see this work heading in the next decade? When they speak, how do they speak and how intently do others listen?

Organizations change over time and once you have come to know the place you work for, you will likely see opportunities for improvements, new projects, and personal advancement. Give yourself time to get there; don’t feel the need to rush through it all right at the beginning.

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About the Author | For nearly two decades, Jeannette has been working for nonprofits and helping people identify their strengths. She has experience as an advocate for women and girls in crisis, a volunteer coordinator for adult literacy, and a family literacy instructor.

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