I recently was listening to Fresh Air on NPR and they had Dr. Thomas Boyce as their guest. He is an emeritus professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. He has spent nearly 40 years studying the human stress response and recently released a book called The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive.

In the interview he talks about a study where kids were given mildly challenging tasks and then the researchers measured the children’s cortisol (the stress hormone) levels and their autonomic nervous system which is where the flight or fight mechanism lives.

What they found was that most kids can manage the tasks with limited affect on their stress hormone or autonomic nervous system.  He called these kids “dandelion children”. They will do well under both stressful and non-stressful situations.

But there was a small percentage of kids that he calls “orchid children” who measured high cortisol levels along with having sweaty palms and dilated pupils which is what happens when you feel you are unsafe and need to prepare to fight or take flight.

These kids have a harder time dealing with stressful situations.

The orchids will thrive in a structured, well-supported, positive environment but will wither if they are in an environment that is less structured or more chaotic. They also have more illness and are at a greater risk for high blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues.

Baby Orchids Grow Up to be Adult Orchids

This tendency to struggle in high-stress environments is not something you just grow out of. This is a part of who you are. The good news is that awareness with better coping mechanisms…and I would suggest a regular exercise and meditation routine…can help you better understand the type of work and work culture that best suits you.

How to Assess for Culture When on an Interview

Dandelions can thrive in both unstructured as well as structured environments and probably would have no problem working for a start-up or company where there is a lot of context switching, shifting priorities and many plates spinning. Some may even prefer this.

Orchids, on the other hand, would be setting themselves up for failure or, at the very least, a lowered immune system, if they were to choose to work under these circumstances.

Learning about a culture can help both dandelions and orchids understand what they are walking into so that there are no surprises. Of course, you need to know what type of culture you want (one that supports orchids or dandelions, big team/small team, remote work/an office, open work space/cubes or offices etc.) so that you can tailor your questions to this. Once you are clear on the culture you want there are a few ways you can go about getting the real lowdown on a company’s culture before you start working there.

1. Be a detective

Before you go on an interview check out company reviews on Glassdoor.comcareerbliss.com and at vault.com. Go to LinkedIn.com and look for past employees.  Ask them to tell you what they liked and did not like about working at the employer.

2. Do reverse behavioral interviewing

Behavioral interviewing is when the interviewer asks you questions about specific situations from your career or schooling. They are going on the assumption that past behavior predicts future behavior and want to explore how you may have handled a project gone bad or an employee not performing. These questions usually start with a phrase like, “Tell me about a time when you …”. You can use this same technique to get examples from them. You might ask them to tell you about how they manage projects and shifting priorities? Have them tell you about how someone might get trained and promoted.

3. Just ask

Be straight-forward and ask them to describe the culture in 3 words. Ask everyone you meet with on the interview this same question thereby getting a variety of answers and perspectives. Ask them their philosophy on flexible schedules or working from home. Ask what is one thing they wish they would have known before they joined the company. Ask about the pace, the structure and average amount of hours people work in a week.

4. Take notice of your surroundings

While on the interview make sure to check out the space. Do you see personal touches, a ping-pong table, awards?  Do you hear laughter or see people who look like they are enjoying their work? Is their electrical tape holding the carpet down (yes, this actually happened)?

Extra Somethings

During the process did you feel like your time was respected. Did they follow up with you. Did you feel wanted? Did you feel like they were invested in your success?