Rows of identical green chairs with one yellow chair.

It’s time to Ditch Culture Fit for Culture Add

Author: Laura Morrison

Maybe you were both lifeguards or you’ve volunteered at the same charity. Maybe you both love rock climbing or you both grew up in families that moved around a lot. Whatever the shared experience is, having something in common is often the foundation for human connection. 

“Culture fit” is a common term used when we talk about recruiting. Generally, it is understood as the likelihood that a candidate will be able to conform and adapt to the core values and collective behaviours that make up an organization. Although hiring people who are committed to the core values of your organization is essential, the idea of “culture fit” is often incredibly vague — based on gut instinct rather than a specified and well understood set of values. 

In her time researching top investment banks, management consultancies, and law firms, workplace practices expert Lauren A. Rivera found that “culture fit” was most often associated with personal fit rather than a fit with organizational values. Interviewers were most interested in candidates who had shared experiences — candidates who had grown up in the same town, gone to the same college, or had the same hobbies. For these companies, personal chemistry was the deciding factor rather than qualifications or a dedication to the organization’s core values. 

This phenomenon is known as Affinity Bias — a term that describes our tendency to connect with people who are like us. As human beings, we are more likely to be friends with people who come from similar cultural backgrounds, have similar family structures, and have hobbies and interests that are similar to ours. We’re also more likely to trust people who are like us. We’re more likely to date, marry, hire, work with, vote for, and read work written by people who resemble us. We are literally wired to think this way; the neural pathways we use when we think about people who belong to our “in-group” are the same pathways that light up when we think about ourselves. We are biochemically predisposed to show more empathy and understanding to people who are like us. A completely different neural pathway is used when we think of people outside our social and cultural groups. You’re not a bad person for having affinity bias, but you should be aware of it so that you don’t let it determine who you hire.

You’re not a bad person for having affinity bias, but you should be aware of it so that you don’t let it determine who you hire.

Though we have a tendency to be more comfortable working with people who are similar to ourselves, research shows that homogenous groups are less likely to produce innovative ideas or complete complex tasks. In fact, companies with diverse teams are more likely to be industry leaders and outperform their competitors. Organizations who have practices and policies in place to mitigate affinity bias, resulting in the hiring of more diverse candidates, are not just HR leaders, but higher performing companies overall. 

So, how should we conceptualize culture in the workplace? Firstly, it’s important to conceptualize organizational culture not as a feeling, but rather as a clearly communicated set of values and expectations. As Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade says, “The only way that culture in the workplace is effective is if there are sets of values that help the company achieve its strategy”. In order to build an effective company culture, focus on 1-3 core values that have a clear connection to how you, as an organization, operate. For example, if an important aspect of your organization is an atmosphere of collaboration, it makes sense to look for employees who value communication and teamwork. Put more focus on finding candidates who exemplify those specific values, and less focus on whether or not you both like craft beer or scuba diving.

Firstly, it’s important to conceptualize organizational culture not as a feeling, but rather as a clearly communicated set of values and expectations.

Actions to take today:

  1. Review your hiring practices. Having structured hiring practices is key when tackling affinity bias at work. Take some time to reflect on how candidates move through your organization’s process. We’ve outlined some practices to consider here.
  2. Clearly communicate your organization’s values. To clarify what culture means in your workplace, make sure you communicate with both current and prospective employees what your core values are. As mentioned above, there should be 1-3 of these values that guide how your organization operates. Make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to what is most important.
  3. Gather feedback. Your employees can be very valuable resources as you assess your own organizational culture. We recommend conducting an anonymous company-wide survey in order to elicit honest opinions from your employees on topics such as values, leadership, hiring and promotion opportunities, and more. Book a free expert session with us today to discuss how to conduct a meaningful audit.

Here’s the real question: do you want a candidate who will fit in with your current organizational culture or someone who will make it better? If what you want is innovation, creativity, and top performance, research shows you should be looking for “culture adds” rather than “culture fits”. What’s missing from your organization right now? Keep an eye out for candidates who can enrich your team rather than just fit in. 

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