Every company has its own quirks—its ''dysfunctionality quotient,'' so to speak. How dysfunctional was your last company, and how much tolerance do you have for dealing with a company's shortcomings and inconsistencies?

Why Ask This Question?

Tolerance for a company's shortcomings and inconsistencies is definitely an area that calls for compatible business styles. If you re fairly patient and realize that the hands of time turn slowly, then matching yourself up with a bull in a china closet who s used to issuing mandates that force immediate change will probably irritate both of you pretty quickly. You'll feel that she s too aggressive and makes overly optimistic assumptions by overcommitting herself. She'll feel that you're much too laid back and lack the necessary sense of urgency to steer the ship in a new direction.

Signs of dysfunction within a company include an overactive grapevine, compartmentalization, the need for total control, a deterioration of company ethics, isolation by function, and cynicism. Every company shares these characteristics at any given time—only the degree of dysfunctionality varies. Engaging a candidate to objectively address these corporate weaknesses demands that the individual ride a fine line between outright, subjective criticism and an objective, evaluative critique of organizational shortcomings. With this question, you'll want to assess candidates insights into the problems they ve faced battling bureaucracy as well as the solutions they ve provided in attempting to overcome those organizational flaws.

Analyzing the Response

Red Flags

If a candidate places herself in a victim posture by identifying weaknesses that negatively affected her performance, then beware this individual s capacity for dealing with adversity. As long as there are people in a company, there will be personality conflicts, power plays, weak leaders, jealous peers, and apathetic subordinates. Placing blame on the company for not controlling these universally human issues spells weakness and poor stamina on the candidate s part.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. If a candidate fails to understand the point of this question and bluntly responds that his current company isn't dysfunctional at all, clarify your question by asking:

''Could your company be characterized as having an overactive grapevine? In other words, do the people standing around the water cooler know more about the power plays and machinations at the executive level than they probably should?''

or

''Do you find that departments work more independently of each other than they should? After all, without constant interaction among functional units, it's possible that not all players will be tugging in the same direction at any given time.''

or

''Would you describe your senior management team as tight-fisted and autocratic, or does it have a policy of open financials and full disclosure so that employees feel that they own the company rather than just work there?''

or

''Were any particular departments or any of your immediate reports consistently cynical about working in the company? More important, how justified were they in their complaints?''

Not even the most balanced company will meet all of these criteria, so pointing these areas out should help communicate what you want the candidate to address.

Once you've gotten the candidate to identify an organizational shortcoming (which shouldn't be too hard after providing such a varied menu to choose from!), employ this follow-up query: ''Tell me what role you played in solving some of these problems.'' By their very nature, organizational or cultural weaknesses are systemic issues beyond the control of any one employee. Therefore, you can't expect one person (shy of the CEO) to have a serious impact on an organization's cultural shortcomings. Still, you may find that this person might have started a grassroots, bottom-up movement that encouraged interdepartmental communications.

For example, a sales manager who invites human resources recruiters to spend a day in the field to get a better feel for the types of challenges facing the account executives will open up the lines of communication between two otherwise isolated units. A vice president of finance who holds a management training workshop on how to read the firm's annual report likewise breaks through such barriers. And anyone who persuades other employees around the water cooler to stop spreading rumors is doing his share to better the work environment. A small step, yes, but a positive step nonetheless. And if you're cut from that same cloth and share similar beliefs, you'll complement each other's work styles and business objectives.

 
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