Avoiding grass-is-always-greener syndrome


For a worker down in the cube farm, it's easy to see the dysfunction of your own company, and to imagine that almost anyplace else would be better.

I don't have any data to back this up except my own personal experience, but I've worked at enough companies and seen enough others up close that I'm willing to go out on a limb here: All companies are dysfunctional. The thing is, they're all dysfunctional in different ways. This means that it's possible to pick an employer whose dysfunctions are ones that will bug you less. The key is to understand what it is that's really bugging you, and then to check for those particular dysfunctions at the new company.

The first part is easy to describe, although it may be hard to get the perspective to do a good job. All you need to do is:

  • Analyze the dysfunctional aspects of your work that bug you.
  • Think about them.

The "thinking" stage here is not about coming up with ways to fix things at your current employer--let's give you credit for having made those efforts long ago. The reason to think about them is to come up with questions to ask at a potential new company to see if they're dysfunctional in the ways that you've already learned are a problem for you. (You don't need to find out if they're dysfunctional in other ways: they are. But maybe they're dysfunctional in ways that, although they may bug other people, you'll be able to just shrug off as no big deal.)

If you're interviewing with people who will be your peers, you don't even have to be especially subtle. They don't want to have to work with some new-hire who turns grumpy and grouchy as soon as he or she starts, so if there's something that would make you grumpy or grouchy, ask about it. In the thinking stage above, you've come up with polite ways to get the information you want.

You don't need to ask, "Is the manager a insecure fool who cares more about face-time than actually getting the work done?" But you can ask, "What measures does the boss seem to use when evaluating performance." Your potential peers will very likely clue you in.

You don't need to ask, "Is the manager a psycho who yells at anyone who suggests that doing things differently might be better?" But you can ask, "Is process-improvement an important goal here?"

It's always good to toss out a few general questions that can elicit warnings. "Tell me about the culture here," is worth trying. Ask about how different departments work together. If there are multiple sites, ask about how they work together. Any general questions about how things are done give people a chance to warn you about the things that bug them, giving you the information you need to decide if those things will bug you.

If your only chance to interview is with the boss, it gets a little harder, but only a little. Your boss is no more interested in hiring someone who will be miserable there than your peers are. Find ways to ask the questions such that asking won't ruin your chances if the answer is what you're hoping it is. Neutral questions, such as "What are a couple of things you do to promote teamwork among your employees?" are usually safe. Even better are questions that give the boss a chance to praise their working environment. You'll find out what the boss thinks are plusses, without needing to mention things that might be minuses for you.

When a potential boss or coworker doesn't have a good answer, it's always possible that simply asking will shoot down your chances--but that isn't so bad if you'd just have been miserable at the new place anyway.

I've known too many people who have gone from job to job to job, always leaving because they were unhappy, but always finding themselves at a new job that also made them unhappy, simply because they didn't take the time to get clear in their head what it was about their job that made them unhappy and then check whether the new place would be better.

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Justin Ryan's picture

It's very important to know what it is about your workplace that bugs you and look for an employer that doesn't exhibit them.

I wonder, however, how likely the questions are to work. I'm inclined to think you're more likely to get a positive response regardless of whether the situation is truly positive or not, because companies are so worried about positive image. The last company I worked for would have said just about anything to make themselves look good, while the whole company was really the fifth circle of Hell. 

I think having the chance to talk to potential coworkers would be great, and you're much more likley to get a straight answer out of them, as long as they don't think management is going to find out what they say. I think I'd go for a bit more of the direct approach, so they know what you're asking; they may not necessarily associate "psycho boss" with "process improvement." Perhaps asking "What is the relationship between managers and employees like?" would be a bit more direct and likely to get a straight answer.

Guest's picture

Here! Hear!
It's just a job.

Julie Rains's picture

I tend to like Philip's subtle approach. How someone answers asking open-ended questions can be very revealing whether it's potential employers/colleagues or even  vendors. You quickly find out what they value and, even more interesting, what they think you value.

Philip Brewer's picture

It's certainly true that some people will lie to make themselves or their company look good, but I think even those answers will be revealing. To tell a good, consistent, and yet false story about something as complex as a workplace requires skills that most people don't have. Good questions can give you a lot of insight into what they're lying about, even if you can't get to the truth. And knowing what they're lying about is often enough for you to make a wise decision.

Good questions need to be both specific and open-ended. So, don't ask "What's your policy on scheduling vacation time?" but rather "How have you handled it in the past when two people both wanted to take vacation at the same time?"

Guest's picture

Great post.

I hadn't really thought about trying to probe the a prospective company in such a way. The subtle questions are great, and I look forward to using them when I look for a new job next year.

Myscha Theriault's picture

I'm with you, Philip. Anybody clued in to what you're really asking is going to know what type of information you are looking for, and appreciate your professionalism in asking. Phrasing things in a way which clearly promotes your own agenda is a short road to nowhereville. You want information to help you make an informed decision, not to stir up trouble among the ranks, particularly if you're looking for any type of advancement in that company. That's only my opinion, though. Others may have different approaches and mindsets.


Andrea Karim's picture

I'm going to back Justin. I establish rapport with new potential coworkers during the interview, and I ask very direct questions. Sometimes I'll frame them in a humorous way, and other times, I'll be very straight-forward. It depends on the demographics and attitude of the person that is interviewing me.

And remember, you're better off having a question or two about how the company works during an interview.

Regarding the article, which by the way, is quite good, I have to say that I had to learn what I REALLY wanted from a company. I once worked for a company that never disclosed anything to its employees, so we'd get big announcements through the NEWS. That's a bad feeling. I honestly thought that I wanted to work for a company that disclosed everything to its employees, so I made a point of working for a company that did just that.

Turns out, I didn't want to hear every single stupid detail about every single meetings. Bored me stiff. I just wanted a nice summary of what's going down.

I've yet to find a happy medium, but I've learned that both extremes of the information disclosure scale are not to my liking.

Philip Brewer's picture

It's taken me years and years to begin to understand what I really want. And, as Andrea points out, it's not as simple as the opposite of whatever you hate about your current workplace.

Still, figuring out what you want is crucial, if you want a new job to be an improvement. Only once you know that, are you in a position to at least try to figure out if a workplace is going to be a good fit for you. Whether you go with direct questions or subtle questions to figure that out is a judgement call based on your own personality, your reading of the people you're interviewing with, and your own situation with your current job.

I like the subtle question approach because it's a good fit for the way I talk to people anyway. Also, though, I don't think I have any particular skill at spotting a bald-faced lie, but I think I'm pretty good at spotting the inconsistencies that turn up when someone is trying to give a misleading impression while answering multiple answers to multiple questions.

Andrea Karim's picture

Yes, personality might be the difference, eh? I tend to be more direct in general. Sometmes it rubs people the wrong way, but I try to temper it so as not to really tick people off. Can't please everyone, right?

My experience is that when I asked really subtle questions, I get subtle answers. :) And I'm so bad at sussing out what is meant. That's why I did so badly on the LSATs.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Wow. This is turning into a great discussion.

I'm not against direct questions as a rule. I've just found that during an interview when you've first walked through the door is when many less than "team oriented" people may be on the look out for any reason to position themselves in front of anyone they feel may be a fast mover and may misrepresent your questions to others for less than honorable reasons.

I agree with what you said, Andrea, about building trust and a relationship with the the more direct, no nonsense questions. I guess for me though (and this is just a personal preference from various situations over the years), I like to save those conversations for a bit later after I've felt people out a little bit.

Although, since the initial point was to see if you even wanted to work for a particular company to begin with, you may not want to have to accept the job to find out those kinds of details. As for the bullshit meter, I guess mine fluctuates with accuracy depending on how much is going on in my life.

Maybe it all just boils down to going with your gut and your own preference. Either way,it's still fair to ask questions of the company so you can make an informed decision.

Also, it's probably fair to point out that the types of employment I've had in the past may color the way I feel I like to ask the types of questions Phillip suggested and when I am comfortable getting more down to basics with the direct types of questions.

Congratulations on another great discussion topic, Phillip.  

Guest's picture

There will never be a perfect company, that, I am sure of. I also work in a company with such situation as mentioned above. I’ve been through lots of work and I never have experience perfect compensation with them, just then I realize that, you will always find fault in everything especially if you are really looking for it. But if you really love your job, you don't mind all these minor discomforts 'coz the point is--you enjoy your work...Just like in choosing the perfect auto parts for your car you’ll always find so much imperfection with the brand that you don’t have compliance. So, with my peugeot catalytic converter, I don’t have any doubts with it ‘coz I trust the maker plus its performance. Hope you get the connection…That’s all…

Guest's picture

"All companies are dysfunctional"

It's difficult to take anything that follows too seriously.