The Dark Side of “Culture Fit”

Note: this post is the third in a five-part series on “Navigating Culture Fit in 21st Century Organizations.”

I was on a Twitter chat about culture fit a while back, and one of the opening questions was something along the lines of “what is culture fit?” My favorite answer came from my good friend, Joe Gerstandt, and it was something along the lines of:

Culture fit is a vague and ill-defined concept we use to justify not hiring people we don’t like.

Ouch. But there’s some truth to that. As you can tell from my previous posts, I think culture fit is important. I think that when the people who work in our organizations are aligned with the way we do the work, generally things are better. But there is a dark side to culture fit that we must acknowledge. There are two big pieces to it.

First, there’s unconscious bias. If you’re unaware of the term, here’s a nice video about it, but in terms of culture fit, we have to remember that our decisions about who is a fit and who is not a fit are ALWAYS impacted by our unconscious bias. It’s just how our brains work. The unconscious mind does a lot of work categorizing things for you. It’s part of how we make sense of an infinitely complex world, so it serves a purpose. But it can lead to an organizationally unintentionally ruling people out who would be a cultural fit, but aren’t categorized as such because your unconscious mind found a reason to be worried about them.

Second, there is the diversity/innovation problem. While culture fit is important and valuable, you always have to balance that with the fact that if you create a system where everyone has the same approach and the same preferences, you can become less likely to actually develop new ideas. In other words, if you start hiring lots of people who already think like you, then the solutions you come up with are going to start look remarkably like the solutions you came up with yesterday. You need difference in order for innovation to thrive. So don’t let “culture fit” get in the way of that.

So be aware of the dark side of culture fit. It can be managed, but only if you’re paying attention to it.

Jamie Notter is a co-founder and growth strategist at PROPEL, a coaching, consulting, and learning company helping headers integrate culture, strategy, and execution. He can be reached at jamie@propelnow.co