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  • Ben Kettle

Culture Fit is (mostly) Bullshit 💩

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

Knowing the different types of "culture fit" pays dividends. Which one are you using?


Hey Everyone,


This post is the first of two planned posts on “culture fit.” I say planned because “culture fit” is a deep well so it will come up a fair bit in the future.


I’m also curious to hear any stories you guys have regarding “culture fit” at your organizations. Good or bad, I’m sure there are some stories to tell.


As always, thank you for reading!


Ben


 

Shortly after announcing this newsletter a friend reached out and said “can't wait to see your honest thoughts on ‘culture fit!’ bullshit.”


Well, here we are.


My purpose for this post is to:

  1. Make the clear distinction between the two different types of culture fit, Personal and Organizational

  2. Convince you that personal culture fit should be avoided to create an inclusive and high-performing workplace.

  3. Provide some guidance on how you can make the phrase “culture fit” truly valuable for you and your organization.

 


The Two Types of Culture Fit


In 2015 Lauren Riveria published a great (and frequently cited) piece in the New York Times titled “Guess Who Doesn’t Fit in At Work.” In it, Riviera makes the convincing argument that the culture fit has devolved from “people who share organizational values” to those who share a “personal fit” with whoever was interviewing them at the time. She goes on to provide seemingly endless, cringe-inducing, and sadly too relatable examples from her field research.


To make Riveria’s key point a bit more explicit, let’s define the two types of culture fit:


Organizational Culture Fit is how someone demonstrates the values, skills, and traits that an organization prizes. Said another way, it answers the question “Does this candidate align with the same values, traits, and skills that we, as an organization, value?”


Personal Culture Fit is how well a person or candidate aligns with you. It answers the question “Do I like (Want to get a beer with, have similarities with, etc.¹) this person?”


See the difference? One “fit” is about you, the other is about your organization.


Although she doesn’t quantify it, Riveria implies that she saw much more evaluation for personal fit than organizational. In my experience that’s been the case as well.


Hiring for cultural fit- prevalence for type
Source: My anecdotal experience - but this feels really close doesn’t it?


Be a Bigger Person - Challenging “Personal Culture Fit”


If you have ever dinged or hired someone based on a personal culture fit I have good news: it’s not your fault.


Back in the ’80s, psychologist Robert Cialdini famously developed the six principles of persuasion. “Liking” was the fifth one, in Cialdini’s words:

Observers have a greater liking for those whose facial features are easy to recognize and whose names are easy to pronounce.

And…

People who learn they have something significant in common like each other more, leading to more cooperation and liking.

So, according to Cialdini, you’re more likely to cooperate, like, and be persuaded by someone who is “easy to recognize” (i.e. looks similar to you) and who has the same common interests as you do.


If you’re in the position to build a team, your job (quite literally) is to build the best team possible. There’s ample evidence that suggests team homogeneity is detrimental to overall performance, particularly regarding complex tasks.² In other words, a team made up of people demographically similar to you is a poor way to build a high-performing team.

Culture fit meme

Again, it’s not anyone’s fault that they initially prize personal culture fit. But it’s one of those hard-wired human behaviors that our modern society has outgrown. It’s time we all moved on. After all, now we know better.


Finally, and to add some urgency, my belief is that the rise of remote work makes evaluating Personal Culture Fit even more useless. During the beginning of COVID, I completely switched my hiring strategy from local only to fully remote. Six months later over half my team I had never met in person. We never really got to test that whole “are they fun to get a beer with” culture fit thing and you know what? We all did just fine.



Making “Culture Fit” a Useful Measure


There are two things you can do to make culture fit a meaningful measure again.


First: Screen for Organizational Culture Fit, Not Personal Culture Fit


Riveria summarized how to screen candidates for Organizational Culture Fit well.

Organizations that use cultural fit for competitive advantage tend to favor concrete tools like surveys and structured interviews that systematically test behaviors associated with increased performance and employee retention

I’ve written about how you can implement those tools quite a bit here, here, and here. Once you know what you’re screening for you can start developing how you screen for them.³


Second: Question Personal Culture Fit as a Decision Driver


The second is to question anyone on the hiring committee who uses “isn’t a culture fit” as an excuse to hire or pass on a candidate.


Admittedly questioning someone’s judgment can be a sensitive issue, but you don’t have to be a jerk about it. Asking “Why not?” is a perfectly valid response to the “just not a culture fit” crowd. My guess is that you’ll get an equally vague reason, and if you press more, you’ll confirm that the interviewer didn’t feel like they could be friends with the candidate. Which tells you a lot more about the interviewer than anything or anyone else.


 

As always, thank you for reading. For next week’s post, I’ll talk about how evaluating for organizational culture fit can help adapt culture as your organization grows.


Until then, have a great week!



Further Reading

 

1 There are many well-worn, pithy, cliches here. My favorite is “stuck in an airport lounge” because it also implies a certain social status 🛩🥂.

2 I understand that the “diverse teams = better performance” argument deserves more discussion so I’ll be writing more about it in the future. Let’s roll with it for now.


3 It should go without saying, but your organization must demonstrate its values through action. “Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence” were all Enron’s values, and look how well that turned out.

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