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Article by Jeff Thompson

I had always wanted to work at a place that had fun: lots of laughter and smiling faces, an open-door policy, people working together. In short, I wanted to work at a place I could call home.

So, in the ’80s, when I was working for a frozen pizza brand, I took it upon myself to seek out my ideal company culture, the one I knew I’d thrive in. I carefully observed how district leaders’ behaviors and communication habits created distinct cultures within their districts. When I was promoted to a district manager position at 26, I was able to use my observations to begin building the specific culture I wanted to be part of and provide for those around me. I’ve been curating the cultures of my companies ever since.

According to Gallup’s “2017 State of the American Workplace” report, only about half of professionals are currently engaged at work. Company culture drives engagement, and engaged employees are more productive, happier, and more empowered to perform at optimal levels. I believe company culture may be the single biggest determinant of success for employees.

But company culture is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Different people thrive in different cultures, and you need to determine what style will keep you engaged and motivated at work.

Throughout my career, I’ve personally encountered three distinct types of cultures:

1. The Competitive Culture

When I worked at the pizza company, highly competitive cultures were the easiest to recognize. Competitive leaders believe success is entirely up to them. They believe if they don’t win, they lose, and they look out for themselves first. These were the managers who attracted salespeople who wanted to be No. 1 in the district — and wanted it at any cost. Anything less than an all-out drive to be at the top meant you probably wouldn’t survive. Managers fired their lowest-producing workers every 12 months (if they couldn’t force them into quitting first).

Though this competitive culture was riveting for thrill seekers, it also created a distrustful environment. Everyone was working against each other, and district managers encouraged the competition. People who lead this way can be successful in the short term, but eventually, the competitive culture will instill fear in employees, whether that’s fear of being fired or fear of not measuring up. Such fear leads to low employee confidence and, ultimately, low retention. In fact, 43 percent of employees say they’d leave their current job if the environment became too competitive.

2. The Hands-Off Culture

If you tend to think people put too much pressure on themselves and your top priorities aren’t money and success, you’ll feel right at home in a hands-off culture. At the pizza company, the district managers who paid the most attention to themselves, their families, and their jobs built this type of culture.

These managers didn’t micromanage their salespeople or push them to compete; they simply let them do their own thing. This was good and bad: While the managers didn’t foster toxic competition, they tended to have a “do your job to make me look good” mindset and didn’t put much effort into the management aspect of their jobs.

As a result, mediocrity reigned supreme in these cultures. There was minimal pressure to succeed, and nobody pushed anybody. In effect, this culture was really more of an absence of culture. The district managers rarely showed up in their territories, mostly kept in touch by phone, and often rewarded employees with perks like dinner or parties when they did well. No one really grew within this culture.

3. The Collaborative Culture

In a collaborative culture, managers put their employees first. I most admired the district managers who built this kind of culture. They visited every territory equally (even the less profitable ones) and went to bat for their employees if a corporate goal was unachievable or they needed additional promotional time. They refused to fire good workers, even if it meant putting their own jobs on the line.

A collaborative culture is one that builds trust and support between all employees. According to the “Slack Future of Work Study,” 91 percent of employees want to feel more connected to their coworkers. A collaborative culture is founded on such connection. When your coworkers and managers are committed to helping the people around them succeed, it means more success for both the company and the individuals within it.

When I became district manager at the pizza company and began forming the culture on my own, I focused on the collaborative style. Since then, I’ve stuck with it. I’ve now been instilling a collaborative culture in my current company for more than 25 years. My company’s management team engages our company values of integrity, knowledge, care, communication, and commitment to create a business where we balance our reputation, our agents’ needs, and our clients’ happiness.

Those who welcome support in their careers and want to collaborate rather than compete are drawn to this kind of culture. These are people who want to be part of something bigger than themselves, value shared leadership, and raise others’ voices up.

Finding Your Cultural Match

How can you evaluate a company’s true culture when exploring new job opportunities? It seems like a tall task, but it may actually be easier than you think. I find that the simplest, most accurate way to get a good gauge on a culture is by visiting the company in person. Ask to tour the office when you visit and make mental notes of things that stand out to you.

For instance, what do people’s workspaces look like? Are they messy, fun, or rigidly organized? If desk spaces look barren and include very few personal touches, you’ve likely found a competitive culture where employees tend to be more focused on one-upping each other than on creating a warm, inviting space. The desk spaces in hands-off and collaborative cultures will similarly vary: some sparsely decorated and others laden with personal touches.

Be sure to listen or talk to the employees you come across on your tour. If the space is dead silent, it’s more likely to be a competitive atmosphere than a collaborative one. Conversely, if it seems a bit too rowdy and unfocused, the culture might be a little too hands-off.

Even front-desk staff members can give you an excellent idea of what it’s really like to work at a company. Sure, they’re welcoming when you first enter the building, but hang around for five minutes and see if they still give you the same smile. Listen carefully when they answer the phones and talk with other employees.

Pay attention to what you hear, see, and most importantly, feel as you walk through the office. It might not be a tangible metric, but the vibe of a place goes a long way in conveying its true personality. In my experience, the feeling you get when you first walk into an office is generally an accurate reflection of the company’s culture.

Here are three more steps to help you find the company with the perfect culture for you:

1. Know Thyself

It’s hard to change your personality. Just because you want to be in a collaborative culture doesn’t mean you’ll actually fit in there.

Once, I interviewed someone who had a reputation for being competitive, hard-nosed, and difficult to work with. I addressed this during her interview, and she expressed her desire to change, saying she wanted to work with our office because of our reputation for collaborating with other offices. She wanted to change her image, and she believed we could help. Though we worked hard at it — and I believe she did, too — the task proved too difficult. She could not change who she was, so she moved on.

Know yourself well enough to choose a culture that fits you, and everyone will be happier. Take the time to self-reflect, and ask your friends for their opinions, too. You may not think you’re highly competitive, but those closest to you could have a different opinion!

2. Check the Company’s Footprint

Do some research on the company — and I’m not just talking about service lines or revenue projections. Take a good look at a potential employer’s website and social media channels to see how the company presents itself and how it interacts with others online.

For example, let’s say you value a sense of humor. If you get 10 posts into a prospective employer’s social media profile without seeing anything more than sales content full of industry jargon, chances are the company isn’t the best fit for you.

3. Buy Someone Lunch

If you know someone at a company you’re looking into, do some networking and invite that person out to lunch. If you don’t know anyone there, this step will require you to go out on a limb, but it will be worth it. Research the company to find employees who are doing what you want to do. Then, reach out via LinkedIn or email. Tell them you’re interested in learning more about the company, and invite them to meet you somewhere close to the office.

Don’t bombard a person, but do come prepared with questions that will help you determine whether the culture is the right fit for you. If you like to chat with coworkers, for example, ask if employees spend time together outside the office. If you like to flex your creative muscles, ask if employees are allowed to decorate their cubicles. Don’t look past the little things.

The bottom line? Listen to your gut when it comes to culture fit. I’ve had successful new hires tell us our office “just felt right” when they walked in, and that was how they knew they wanted to work with us. A company’s vibe is hard to miss if you’re paying attention to the right things.

A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.

Jeff Thompson is managing partner at Windermere Group One (WGO). WGO is a member of Windermere Real Estate, a real estate network comprising 300 offices and more than 6,000 agents throughout the western United States. Jeff is truly passionate about helping build companies by building their people. He leverages his 25+ years of experience in real estate to coach other managers and brokers. Jeff credits much of his success to hard work and a willingness to partner with good people.

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