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The slippery slope of culture fit

Senior leaders often ask for my help in defining ‘culture fit’.

Born of their frustration that cultural inconsistencies create inefficiency, disharmony and frankly, a lot of extra work, many focus on how talent can be better screened to ensure they fit into their organisation’s existing culture.

Indeed, culture fit is increasingly seen as one of the most important criteria for hiring and promotion. And as organisational culture is now recognised as one of the key levers that delivers organisational performance, it’s a key issue for leaders to address.

At first glance, hiring for culture fit seems like wholly logical thing to do. If employees fit the culture, then the organisational should run much more smoothly. People should feel more comfortable, may be happier and more engaged, and might even work harder. There will be less operational friction, fewer disagreements, more harmony. Managers will work with the people they want to work with and hopefully have fewer people issues to solve, liberating themselves to focus on their day jobs. Seems obvious right?

Indeed, a lot of companies have gone a step further, implementing various initiatives to drive cultural assimilation once new hires have started. Onboarding programs quickly establish ‘how things are done around here’. Specific rituals and customs reinforce strict conventions. Formal performance reviews encourage employees to fix themselves to fit in. Culture fit has become a key focus for many organisations.

But what if hiring for culture fit actually leads to organisational irrelevance? What if driving cultural uniformity actually reduces competitive advantage? What if the last thing an organisation needs is more of the same culture?

The first rather obvious challenge is that hiring for culture fit pre-supposes that an organisation’s culture is not only appropriate to face the challenges of today, but also the challenges of tomorrow.

Knowing, as we all do, that the world is in a constant state of flux, that new technology constantly reshapes the operating landscape, and customer expectations change with the season, selecting for past cultural attributes just at the time when businesses need to develop fundamentally new ways of thinking and doing, seems counter-intuitive at the very least.

For example, if an organisation’s culture is top-down and hierarchical, how does selecting more hierarchical employees enable the organisation to dynamically respond to shorter product lifecycles, greater commercial complexity and an increasingly autonomous workforce?

Or if the current culture is about driving sales, how does hiring sales-focussed talent help the organisation address the growing customer demand for deeper, long-term relationships built upon trust, transparency and mutual benefit?

Or if the current culture is about service and operational efficiency, how does hiring for service orientation and process competence address the constant demand for new customer experiences, or enable the essential innovation and experimentation required to build the new products and services that customers want?

It seems to me that hiring for culture fit can often reduce an organisations ability to adapt, to create, to grow.

And this leads to a second important question. Can hiring for culture fit actually accelerate organisational irrelevance?

Let me elaborate. Culture fit is used as a way to exclude, as much as it is to include. Candidates are ‘just not right’, or managers ‘will know the person when they see them’. But if cultures are ill-defined, left to their own devices or consigned to vague values statements on some canteen wall – as many are - culture fit becomes a subjective evaluation of personal similarity, rather than an objective measure of organisational compatibility.

And this can manifest in some fairly unhelpful management behaviours. Unfamiliar points of view are dismissed. Different opinions are treated as disruptive, rather than constructive. New methods or approaches seem risky or even threatening. Over time, this bias towards similarity pushes the team, division or company towards uniformity, where groupthink is expected, even demanded.

This issue exists in addition to the more frequently debated bias around gender, race, sexual orientation etc (which as we all know are by themselves incredibly powerful reasons to question the concept of culture fit) and edges towards cognitive and procedural bias where different ideas, perspectives and experiences are discounted just for being well…. different.

In this context, culture fit becomes a very effective tool for preserving the status quo. And that’s the exact opposite of what business need to do in the current commercial climate.

So, if culture is a critical lever, but culture fit has some damaging unintended consequences, how should organisations approach this issue when hiring?

Well - I’m not suggesting for one second that organisations should ignore culture when hiring or promoting. Far from it. Cultures are fundamentally stronger when talent is connected through shared, intrinsic attributes.

However, I do think organisations need to rethink their approach for assessing compatibility.

Organisations behave more like living organisms and less like programmable machines. They must compete for survival, constantly adapting to their changing environment. A healthy culture is one that adapts alongside the business, building on its current strengths while developing new attributes that deliver competitive advantage in its changing environment. Organisations need to intentionally build agility, experimentation, innovation and adaptability into their culture, as much as they need to build it into their processes and practices.

When it comes to assessment, organisations (and individuals) need to let go of this idea of culture fit, and replace it with culture add. And that means hiring for cultural gaps.

What attributes do we need to supplement to our culture to enable us to flourish in our new world? What behaviours do our customers, investors and employees expect to see more of?

Now, that doesn’t mean businesses shouldn’t assess candidate compatibility. In fact, I think it’s more important to do that than assessing their content skills (which are less and less relevant as the half-life of skills plummets). But they should assess that through the candidate’s alignment to their purpose and values, rather than their culture.

Talent doesn’t need to share the same perspectives or backgrounds. As we’ve already highlighted, doing that can be commercially dangerous. But shared principles and purpose provide a collective north star by which everyone can navigate, while simultaneously allowing organisations and talent the freedom to evolve their company culture together.

And that surely is the point.

By focusing on the culture gaps, while hiring talent that shares the organisation’s purpose and values, organisations can dramatically evolve their culture, baking in the wonderful creativity, customer centricity, speed and adaptability they are increasingly dependent on, while simultaneously remaining true to their original, authentic selves. And as the world continues to become more unstable and less predictable, that could end up being a potent and indispensable combination.

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