It’s time to write the record straight.

For a long-time a lot of very smart people got behind the notion of “culture fit”.

Culture fit still gets airtime, but we need to cut off its air supply.

This short article will explore the history, psychology, and truths you need to sign up to if you want to be a better leader and make your organisation more diverse and perform better.

The history of culture fit

Years ago, culture fit came in as the hottest corporate parlance, rolling off the tongues of hiring managers, talent acquirers and HR folk alike. A few years ago, if you had collected $1 every time you heard it, you’d be very wealthy by now.

For the sake of the record, the notion of culture fit probably did have a perceived rational base (especially if you consider the psychology of connection and smooth decision-making). Similar views, experiences, backgrounds etc. can make the boat go faster, but it won’t necessarily send the boat to the right, best or acceptable place.

Hiring for culture fit means you’re essentially looking for someone like yourself, in one or more of these ways. This might be the same history, background, culture, values and beliefs, education and career path, and maybe even living in the same suburb or region.

At the height of its reign, culture fit could have been labelled as ‘hiring a mini-me’. At the softer, and perhaps more palatable, end it means people who studied what I did, took a similar pathway to me, and, in some professions, having similar job titles or career histories (i.e., a former engineer might gravitate towards someone who also has an engineering background).

“Hiring for culture fit means you’re essentially looking for someone like yourself.”

At the sharper and less-often-discussed end, it meant people who look like me, went to the same school, have the same level of privilege etc.

If you’re doing that all the time, you might need to start embracing your own discomfort. If you’re worried knowing someone had a sausage for dinner while you had caviar, the problem is not the sausage. Look closer to home.

The psychology behind it

If we even slightly unpack the psychology of this corporate phenomena, we arrive at the following three observations:

  1. There was self-fulfilling talk. Simply put, the talk around culture fit was all high-fiving and back-slapping. Culture fit was the silver bullet to hiring efficiency, not hiring quality. The more people did it, the more they congratulated each other on the concept being deeply valid, not destructive.
  2. Culture fit perpetuates in-group favouritism/affinity bias. If we have more people who are near identical, in-group favouritism becomes almost inevitable. But, as organisations have ramped up diversity and inclusion efforts, organisations have needed to focus on highlighting and shifting these biases, as the real way to break the favoritism is to rebase the numbers so the team isn’t one in-group.
  3. Groupthink creates risk and hampers creativity. We’ve seen too many examples of big cultures that looked similar and thought similarly that got stung as a result.

From the outside, these things looked wild, but inside these cultural echo-chambers, it might have felt normal. This looked like: cash in bags, charging dead customers and missing whole slabs of the society in your customer base.

Home truths

Here are the truths you need to sign up to, if you want to be a better leader and have a better organisation:

  1. If you want a mini-me, do something about it outside of work. Take this as you will (insert link to cute kids or pets that look like their owners).
  2. The best of life doesn’t come in a comfortable bubble. The very richest experiences, with the biggest growth opportunities and lessons, come from having your bubble burst. Get the right people around you so your bubble is forever popped.
  3. It’s not too hard to find out what matters to each person. This is like a superpower to navigate discomfort – in any situation. If you find out about people, even those who are vastly different from you, you will inherently like them more. You’ll problem-solve together, find common ground to stand on together, and, as a result, you might find that you’re standing on better grounds than you have before.
  4. Hire for decency. A few years back, we tried to distill what really matters into something simple and human. We called it the ‘Decent Human test’ and it stands up to this day. If you want to learn more about this, check out this article we wrote at the time.
  5. Change the meaning of affinity – from just like me, to liking them. That’s semantics, but this is about building affinity, even if it takes a little longer and feels a little less comfortable than with people ‘like me’. The rationale is very simple: if we change our default settings to liking others and being open to what they might bring, we’re more likely to add richness and difference to our culture, which leads to all kinds of good things: better ideas, stronger relationships and increased trust.

That’s the history, psychology and truths you’ll need to sign up to if we are going to retire ‘culture fit’ conversation once and for all. Are you up for the challenge?