Interviewing is stressful. There’s often a lack of transparency around important topics like compensation. Some interviewers are unfriendly or might be unprepared. Maybe your interview was rescheduled at the last minute or they ghosted you after (what you thought) was a good interview — only to reach out weeks later.
It’s a gamble to join a new team. Will they treat you right? Are the things you heard during the interview process actually true? You might be able to discover red flags by reading about the experiences of employees directly or via online services such as Glassdoor. Or you can test the company’s culture yourself.
I’ve designed a simple test for evaluating a team’s culture. Here’s how to use it to evaluate a team during the interview process. Below is a summary of the traits I look for and questions you can ask in order to discover how the team really functions. One point for each.
1. Outcomes are assessed instead of output
Check that metrics are used to evaluate the outcomes (not output) and are done so fairly. For instance, doctors could be judged on the accuracy of their diagnoses rather than the time spent looking at charts and test results. The former is an outcome while the latter is an output.
The way in which people work are often evaluated using assessments. These are qualitative points of feedback and include things like peer surveys. Quantitative results (such as number of diagnoses) are often most useful at a team level. Any metrics and assessments should be known to you ahead of time and, preferably, set in a collaborative way. How else can you do a good job?
Some employers use stack ranking to sort workers from best to worst. Companies that use this methodology are hinting that they don't value the nuances that individuals bring to the team. Avoid them.
Finally, when thinking about delegation, managers must clearly communicate about the desired outcome they want you to achieve. After this, they step back and give space and autonomy for you to achieve the best results. Of course, they might need to guide you from time to time, but they won't step in and micromanage the situation.
Questions to ask:
- What KPIs or OKRs will I have an impact on?
- How is peer review used at the company?
- How do you measure success for this role?
- What is your philosophy on delegating work?
2. Feedback occurs regularly
Retrospectives are the most common form of planned feedback. These meetings include the team and serve as a structured way to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly. Usually they occur at least monthly, if not every two weeks.
1-1s are another type of feedback session, focused on a private meeting with a manager and their direct report. Many managers have these meetings but misuse them, turning them into project status update meetings.
The best 1-1s focus on your relationships with the people, processes, and product of your efforts. They'll also cover the motivations and frustrations you have. These moments also serve as a way to discuss, set, and grow towards future career goals.
Some companies also provide critique on an annual cadence. This feedback loop is far too delayed. Can you remember what you were doing a year ago? We like to use semester reviews as an opportunity to self-reflect.
The reviewee prepares thoughts about their performance and the company's actions for the previous 6 months. We also gather peer feedback (assessment). Then we sit down and have a discussion that recaps all the feedback they've received previously. No new surprises here.
Positive feedback is an essential part of motivating any team. A (flawed) study from Harvard Business Review puts the ratio at 5 praise for every 1 critique. I don't think this is too far off since Gallup's 2015 report on American management proscribes a focus on positivity to see the best performance.
Questions to ask:
- How often does the team set aside time for planned feedback sessions?
- What topics are covered in one-on-one meetings (1-1s)?
- Is there a semester review program in place?
- When was the last time you delivered positive feedback to a team member?
3. Interpersonal vulnerability thrives
Interpersonal vulnerability, also known as psychological safety, is a key trait of high performance teams. It also makes for quite a nice working environment. It's an all-or-nothing everyone-trusts-everyone ability to take risks and fail.
Public scolding is one action that undermines vulnerability and trust within a team. It's important that team members step up and intervene when bad leadership occurs. Other behaviors to call out include inconsistency, favoritism, and endless rules.
Failure and mistakes are inevitable, so they must be accepted by organizations and used as an opportunity to learn (see retrospectives above). Other team members and managers shouldn't be focusing on blaming someone when mistakes happen.
Failures most often occur during experimentation. This is how a team improves over time, via small process improvements and new ways of working. Some teams are scared to change anything, citing "we've always done it this way." This is a sign that they are afraid to take risks and either don't trust one another or aren't trusted by the wider organization.
Are you good enough? Imposter syndrome plagues many people, with one meta-analysis study estimating up to 82% of workers are affected by it. It's definitely something a team should feel comfortable openly discussing. If this type of topic is off limits, it could be a sign that people are withholding their thoughts due to their colleagues' reactions and responses.
Questions to ask:
- What was the response the last time someone made a serious mistake?
- Does your team actively experiment?
- How would you respond if you witnessed a colleague being criticized publicly?
- When was the last time the team had a discussion about imposter syndrome?
4. Tasks are clearly defined and prioritized
There are two layers to the organization of a team's work: the strategic and tactical. Strategic organization is present when everyone in the organization can describe a unified vision or mission. Team members must be made aware of what's coming next and the relevant measures of success.
When an organization has many competing ideas about how to execute on a given strategy, there can be an overwhelming number of potential projects. It's important that the company sort through and organize this information so that it's digestible by employees.
One way to do this is with a roadmap. Ask to see it during your interview and check if it's focused on offering specific detailed solutions. The best roadmaps are flexible and focus on a topic or specific problem. Then the team has time to investigate a fitting solution.
When it comes to prioritization, some teams just make things up. This is called Highest Paid Person's Opinion (HiPPO). Ideally, teams can back up their prioritization based on metrics or research. See below for more on this (Decisions are data-informed).
When it's time to begin work, look for a team that will assign you one thing to do at a time. If other tasks suddenly become important, you won't be interrupted but you can continue to focus on the work in progress. When that's complete then it's time to shift to the next most important thing.
If work is properly sized then management won't have to wait so long. Leaders need to help their employees chunk up work into discrete goals; it’s a key skill. While doing this, they can also cut the nice-to-have requests, leaving only the essential must-haves.
Questions to ask:
- Is there a roadmap planned for the next two quarters?
- What methodology do you use to prioritize tasks?
- How do you handle last minute changes to prioritization?
- How do you distribute tasks to your direct reports?
- What are the specific tasks for this role?
5. Time is reserved for deep focus
When it comes to external distractions — those that are driven by forces outside of the team — managers need to be able to say "No" and structure the unplanned work. Sometimes, internal team members are distracting one another, with theoretical questions or discussions that aren't necessary. In this case, the manager can help organize the relevant aspects of the conversation.
Hopefully, there are only a couple of meetings that you need to attend each week, primarily focused on relationship building such as with 1-1s. Status meetings are a sign of disorganization. Instead, tooling takes the burden of communicating about who is working on what and the current level of progress. Some teams also have a daily standup to quickly sync, but these last a maximum 15 minutes.
The open office plan is great for companies — and I mean companies, not employees. Open offices are an excellent way to save on real estate costs. Rather than giving each person their own room where they can deeply focus, everyone is shoved into a big space where every cough or conversation interrupts your flow.
Many companies use instant messaging applications as opposed to email. It's a great benefit for quickly transferring knowledge and resolving issues. But companies that require you to be online all the time are preventing their workers from focusing.
If you're allowed to quit out of the chat, then you can dive deep into the work, without interruption. You need time alone, with just your brain (and maybe some music), to really think about the best way to solve the tasks at hand. Afterall, that’s your purpose as a knowledge worker.
Questions to ask:
- How do you defend the team from interruptions and distractions?
- What type of meetings should I expect to attend?
- How is the office floor plan laid out?
- Are there core hours that I must be available via an instant messaging app?
- What is your policy on remote work?
6. Interactions support collaboration over competition
Ideally, in the course of daily work, you can reach out to your colleagues for any questions you have. If teams are well managed, you'll get the help you need in a reasonable amount of time. Some companies also assign mentors — someone who is more senior and knowledgeable — to coach you in your career development.
Generally, when a manager is delegating tasks, it should be something they are knowledgeable about. This way, they act as the mentor. An alternative to this is that the task is assigned to multiple people (you and some peers). Then, you can work together to research the topic, explore ideas, and deliver a polished solution.
The best teams focus on one major priority, work together to make tangible progress, then move on to the next thing. Sometimes a project necessitates a sole person focusing on a specific task, but this does not mean that collaboration is not occurring.
For instance, imagine a group that needs to paint a room. One person might mix paint, another gets the ladder from the truck, while a third lays out a tarp and begins removing outlet covers. All of these tasks work towards a greater goal.
When conflict inevitably occurs, it's important that it doesn't devolve into a shouting match. Look for a company that makes space for ideas to be discussed, preferably asynchronously in a written document. The team can add comments and then come together to make a final decision. This frames the conflict as "us versus the problem" instead of allowing interpersonal disputes to fester; it also prevents one person from exercising too much role power.
Questions to ask:
- Is there a mentoring program in place?
- What type of support can I expect when tasks are delegated to me?
- What percentage of your week is spent co-creating with colleagues?
- When conflict occurs, how does the team structure their decision making process?
7. Worker health, mental and physical, is protected
Celebrating success is a major factor in helping employees recharge their energy. After a big project is delivered, people need downtime to recover from the stress. Take time to understand the ebb and flow of work at the new company.
It's quite fashionable to offer unlimited time off as a perk. This is a way for companies to improve cash flow since they aren't required to pad their bank accounts with the payout value of earned time off. Regardless if the time off is unlimited or not, ask the hiring manager when the last time they personally took a step away from work. If it's been awhile, maybe there is pressure to always be on the clock.
Some companies run permanent overtime. Others never use it. Understanding just how often people work more than 40 hours in a week is an important piece of a company's culture. Look for a team where people work at a sustainable pace.
Burnout is real and it's a manager's responsibility to monitor it. This is a topic that should be discussed during 1-1s and a good company will mention that. Another tactic might be to hold town hall meetings or group discussions that focus on mental and physical health.
Questions to ask:
- When the team completes a big project, how do they recharge?
- When was the last time you took time off?
- Do you have an overtime policy?
- How do you monitor burnout in your direct reports?
- How would you evaluate the work-life-balance in the company?
8. Knowledge is systematically shared
As companies grow, they need to become more efficient with onboarding new hires. The best way to do this is with written down operational information in the form of an employee handbook. This also allows people that are uncertain about policies to review them at their leisure.
It's a big task to keep everything up-to-date. Sometimes this responsibility falls on one person. If that's the case, it's likely the company doesn't prioritize knowledge sharing. It's everyone's responsibility to ensure that documentation stays current, taking a moment to quickly fix what they notice is incorrect, including the person interviewing you.
Some companies do a fantastic job with documentation but it's spread out across many systems. Instead of consolidating all the information in one spot, sales has their area, engineers have another, and marketing a third. This leads to siloed teams that don't easily collaborate.
Side project time, when employees spend 10% to 20% of their time on pet projects, is a great way for an organization to expand its knowledge. Most companies that use this process also require that colleagues show some tangible result, whether it be a prototype of an improvement or a blogpost explaining what they learned. The focus is on sharing knowledge with colleagues and increasing value.
Questions to ask:
- Do employees receive a handbook that documents policies and procedures?
- When was the last time that you created or updated documentation?
- What strategy is used to consolidate company-wide documentation?
- How many team members participate in Side project time?
9. Diversity, inclusion, & equity permeate (DEI)
We like the term "culture add" as opposed to "culture fit." We think teams need to be hiring people that will challenge the status quo, not reinforce it. As Apple famously said: "Think different." Look for a company that backs up their DEI claims by actively engaging people from diverse backgrounds.
No team is without biases. If they say they have none, they're lying. The trick is understanding which ones you have and how you can improve. In the interviewing process, group interviews and anonymized technical tests are excellent ways to prevent one person from overly influencing the selection process.
Some teams have specific cliques that can be hard to break into. Asking about the existing social groups will give you a good idea about the types of relationships that already exist. For instance, we've seen cases where the entire team has been working together for over 10 years. It's possible to be accepted, but certainly difficult!
We're all still learning and the only way we can do that is when we ask for feedback. It's especially important for folks involved in hiring to be on top of this, regularly checking their biases and ensuring that they are at the forefront of the best practices related to DEI.
Questions to ask:
- How have you encouraged people from diverse backgrounds to apply for this role?
- What types of biases still exist in your company?
- What types of social groups exist on the team?
- When was the last time you requested feedback related to DEI?
- What's the demographic structure of the current team?
10. Colleagues and leaders are compassionate and empathetic
There are many types of leaders; however, the best are deeply focused on the individuals within the team. This requires compassion and empathy. Look for managers that talk about the relationships that they have with their direct reports. You'll be able to hear if they truly care or not.
Sometimes it's super hard to remember the human when you're in the middle of an important discussion. Good managers recognize this and take a step back from conflict by using non violent communication or refocusing the problem. Documents can also be used to track the suppositions and objections.
There must be some sort of "No Assholes" policy in place. The poisonous, egotistical attitude of some high performers is simply not worth the shitty experience. Companies without this policy aren't nice places to work at.
Rules often get in the way of empathy. An excellent test is when an employee has a real life issue that they need to focus on, such as a sick child. Is the response "Take care!" or is it "That's too bad Mr. Anderson; we need you at the 3PM call!"
Questions to ask:
- What type of leader are you?
- What actions do you take during conflict to remember the human?
- What personal traits are unacceptable for team members to display?
- How do you demonstrate empathy during work?
11. Decisions are data-informed
Understanding the problems at hand are essential to any knowledge work. A lot of teams get their start because they have deep expertise in a specific area. And that works for a while. Then they reach a point — much sooner than expected — when research is needed to challenge assumptions and validate ideas. You need to understand who is responsible for this research.
Many teams use quantitative metrics to improve their product or services. Things like Net Promoter Score and revenue key performance indicators help teams understand what is working. But they also need to spend time on open-ended qualitative research. Usually this means sitting down with a customer and finding out what's working and what isn't.
When gathering data, there are a couple satisfactory approaches. Some teams use a formal framework such as double diamond design to ensure that proper discovery work is done. Others will do something more ad hoc but still ensure that they are looking at both qualitative and quantitative sources of information to generate their insights. The worst teams do no research at all.
Process changes are common in agile environments. The question is: are those process changes structured as experiments? Experimentation is an important part of improving the way outcomes are delivered. Running experiments — and collecting the relevant data — are key to improving the performance of a team.
Questions to ask:
- Is there a dedicated team to help answer research questions?
- What types of qualitative research occurs?
- How does the team gather data before making a decision?
- What types of experimentation occur before policies change?
- When was the last time a procedure changed and how did that come about?
12. Employees and their families flourish
Some companies pay so little that even though employees work full time, they still require financial assistance from the government. Companies that can't pay a living wage don't deserve to be in business. And what about their suppliers? Look for a company that doesn't rely on globalism to take advantage of foreign workers.
Another thing to check is how the company treated employees during the 2020 pandemic. Of course, some small companies are forced into unfortunate situations and must go into survival mode. But what happens next? Some employers helped those people with resumes, referrals, and the job hunt. Perhaps, the CEO forewent their pay for several months to avoid layoffs entirely.
Work doesn't have to suck! Good managers are keenly aware of this and use 1-1s to improve the atmosphere whenever they can by looking for areas they can reduce frustration and improve employee happiness. One thing that helps is democratic structures within the workplace.
Finally, we are witnessing that the people of the world can only thrive when we take care of the planet. What does the company do to ensure that our children can inherit a healthy world? Check that your future employer has thought about this and that they make some effort to improve things. Perhaps it's turning away specific clients or maybe they compensate for CO2 pollution for all necessary travel.
Questions to ask:
- Do any employees (or supplier employees) live below the poverty line?
- How did the company support employees impacted by the 2020 pandemic?
- What percentage of your direct reports are happy?
- How does the company protect the environment?
- How long do employees usually stay with the company?