You’ve probably heard of the culture-fit interview. Maybe participated in one. Organizations and teams rightly want to know not only does this person have the skills and aptitude for the job, but also “will this person work in our particular environment?” Prospective employees also want to know that. But by emphasizing culture fit — the assimilable qualities of the person — we may lose sight of an important benefit of bringing new people into our organizations: the person’s additive qualities — new ways of thinking and working, external experiences — that bring energy, creativity and improvement that we can’t simply bootstrap ourselves into from within.
Why Culture Fit Can Be Pernicious
First, don’t hear what I’m not saying — that seeking culture fit itself is unhealthy. Culture fit is absolutely an area of concern, and organizations and candidates should of course consider it in the mix of hiring and development attributes. However, we need a counterbalance, a corrective to it. That’s because culture fit is all too often a one-way concern: Will the person fit in with us? Lest we miss out on what our new hires have to offer, we need that to be bidirectional and mutual: What can we co-create that we couldn’t before?
The lure of culture fit can be particularly pernicious for organizations that pride themselves on their culture. And it makes sense: You don’t want to hire a person who is at odds with the group’s core values and principles. But the tribal nature of culture means a rejection to some degree of outsiders. No matter how much lip service we give to diversity and inclusion, we’re often satisfied with a superficial accomplishment: We’ve hired people who help us create a rainbow in corporate photos, but unfortunately that diversity is only demographic deep. The truly helpful impact is measured only insofar as we allow their ideas to penetrate the often impermeable boundaries of our culture after we’ve hired them.
For example, I once worked with a leadership team who had been in the organization for many years and typically managed their work through spreadsheets, which meant that the group tended to meander in their discussions and would jump from one priority to the next. When I joined their ranks and offered the idea of making the work more visible on a card wall, the group had a choice:
- Reject the idea out of hand
- Nod and passively acknowledge the idea but ultimately ignore it
- Consider then either try or reject the idea
Only the third option demonstrates that a) the group was intellectually curious enough to discover new ways of working and b) viewed their new colleague as having something to contribute. Unfortunately, this group’s choice was to ignore it. Only long afterward did I realize that it wasn’t intentional or out of malice but merely because the group had become so ossified that they couldn’t even countenance what it might mean to work differently. Partly because they had been successful on their own, they had no mental model for improvement that originated somewhere else. It’s the opposite of the “prophet without honor in his hometown” problem; it’s more like “Can anything good come from outside of here?”
And that’s the danger of culture fit: Without intentional and disciplined practices that keep us open to the new members of our groups, we will atrophy in our existing ways of thinking and working.
Culture Fit without Culture Add
Many new hires struggle to find and stay in the flow channel, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept for “being in the zone,” or full engagement in work. I believe that much of the reason new hires find themselves languishing outside of the flow channel is attributable to a lack of mutual integration and intentional concern for knowing (a person feeling unknown) and putting to good use the competencies of the people we’ve invited to come work alongside us (feeling unwanted).
By paying attention to culture-adding behaviors, we can design our organizational and team experiences to bring people back into the flow channel.
How to Emphasize Culture Add
So we need to balance two goals:
- Help the new person to fit into the organization and
- Help the organization to create space for the new person.
Some organizations offer “get to know you” activities during orientation, which is a helpful start. But we should go beyond learning about the person’s hobbies and family. What special qualities and skills does he or she have to bring to work to positively impact us? This is additive or supplemental thinking.
Heidi Helfand talks a lot about dynamic reteaming and how a single change — someone joining the team, someone leaving it — means that you have a new team. We need to take a moment to acknowledge that, rather than carrying on as if nothing happened. We have a new team member; what does that mean for us?
When I led the coaching practice at Asynchrony Labs, one of the questions we coaches would always ask each other about each candidate was “What can this person teach us?” That is, what new or different ideas or competencies might this potential teammate introduce to our group so that we might collectively improve ourselves? Though we wanted someone who would generally share our philosophical approach, we also didn’t want to remain as we were. We explicitly acknowledged that we had a hole in our group, and though we may not know exactly what it was, we pursued filling it from outside ourselves. It’s the perfect culture-add question, because it ensures by its nature that you’re honoring and intentionally expecting the new person’s unique contributions.
Some other options for emphasizing culture add:
- Marketplace of Skills activity
- Strengths Interview (from First, Break All the Rules), which is then shared with each of the new hire’s teams for the first year
- Create opportunities for the new hire to teach his or her new team (or other group) something that he or she brings ; another option is to have each new person, as part of orientation or onboarding, actually have a spot in the agenda to share something about what he or she brings. This demonstrates the organization’s view not only that each new person is valued but that the organization has a need to learn and improve and that the new person in their midst is going to help.
- Personal Best
- The Ten Faces of Innovation activity
- Follow him or her on Twitter, etc. What’s the Twitter-follower imbalance? That is, how many of your team does the new hire follow, and how many of the team follow him?
- Give the new person point of privilege in retrospectives and other team meetings
Ultimately we need to be taking the disciplined steps each day to ensure that culture adding happens, because in our tribal ways, it’s unnatural. Build in a policy whereby someone from the organization — I call this role the onboarding concierge — helps the group to learn about the new hire to find out what the person loves, especially the stuff outside of the role you’ve hired him or her for. Even simple changes in how we talk about our approach can help, like how one company changed their approach from “culture fit” to “values fit.”
Herman Miller’s Ed Simon (as quoted in The Fifth Discipline) summarizes the challenge well:
Embracing change does not mean abandoning a core of values and precepts. We must balance our desire for continuity with our desire to be creative. We must learn how to not abandon that core, while simultaneously letting go of past ways of doing things… This requires a new paradigm, a new model of how organizations work — organizations that operate in a continual learning mode, creating change.
For further exploration: