The 1985 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando had an almost entirely male, 25-40 year old, white cast. The story was written by three white men. The director was the same demographic. Four of the five producers, all three editors, the set designer, the entire production team, the two make-up artists, and the lighting team were all from the same demography.
The result? A fantastic film – if you are also a 25-40 year old, white male. But we would be hard-placed to find a fan of the film that doesn’t fit that demographic mould.
This is cultural fit – both in the organisation (the film crew) and its customers (the audience).
Everyone knows you shouldn’t put a square peg in a round hole. Whilst it is possible (you need a big hammer), it isn’t advisable.
Some may also consider whether they have the correctly sized round peg for their round hole. This, for example, might be an individual in a role that fits culturally, but is not performing up to the level required for that particular role (peg is too small) and might be considered for a move elsewhere in the organisation.
But this is not an organisational design or skills matrixing article.
Nor is it about recruiting more suitable round pegs or critiquing Arnie’s movies. This article is about your culture.
Recruiting for Cultural Fit
Culture can be generally defined as an interrelated set of values, tools and practices that is shared among a group of people who possess a common social identity.
As tribal and social creatures, we tend to gravitate towards people that we share common attributes with. It makes us feel more comfortable and gives us psychological safety and a sense of belonging when we’re with that particular group.
This is a powerful base survival mechanism for when we didn’t know if the tribe in the next valley were a threat. Maybe they looked different, spoke strangely or worshipped a different idol. It’s safer to club together with our tribe and be suspicious of those alien differences.
You can see evidence of this desire all around us: strangers grouping together based on a shared belief, which then connects us primally. Think about football fans, sharing the values of supporting their team. Strangers hugging strangers; singing the same songs; cheering together.
It’s also evident in some workplaces. “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps”. “Finance are a bit cliquey”. “Sales are all party animals”.
Whilst it’s easy to dismiss these sub-cultures within departments, functions and organisations, it is worth remembering that this desire to be with people like us is innate and powerful. It still drives us subconsciously and, like any baser driver, informs our decision making, approach, communication and interaction with those around us.
So, it’s understandable why we would recruit for cultural fit. We like people like us. Someone who’s going to fit into our tribe. Someone who “gets” us.
What’s Wrong with Cultural Fit?
If we’re naturally drawn to people like ourselves and, if only subconsciously, give preferential consideration to those we feel more comfortable with, it opens up several potential risks to our organisations:
You can be manipulated
Culture can manifest in the behaviours, appearance and even demography of your employees and representatives.
You might not have an official or enforced dress code, but it is likely there is a common thread (no pun intended) through your employees if you have recruited for cultural fit. This also applies to the language, tone and syntax you use as an organisation and as individuals when you’re together.
These things can be impersonated by candidates who have researched your business. Not only do they speak your language, but they turned up to the interview (or Zoom) already looking like “one of us”.
You lose innovation
Recruiting one type of individual, with similar values, experiences, approaches, and tools might let them hit the floor running, but it’s also a great way to breed groupthink.
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people in which the desire for conformity results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making process. It also causes the group to reach a consensus decision without conflict, but also without critical evaluation of the issue.
In short, people don’t challenge each other, go with the flow and the result is either to keep doing what we’ve always done or, worse, to try new things without considering evidence, threats and risks whilst reinforcing stereotypes.
You can be exclusionary
If you’re only looking for a candidate that fits your existing culture, then, by definition, you are excluding candidates who don’t fit that culture. Candidates that then can’t bring their different viewpoints, experiences and contributions to your business.
At best, we’re losing our best weapon against groupthink; at worst, this is a potentially slippery slope towards discrimination.
Recruiting for Cultural Contribution
Instead of looking for people who fit the culture, a recommendation is to ask what’s missing from your culture, and select people who can bring that to the table.
Although this is the essence of Diversity and Inclusion, it is not what many people might interpret from D&I/ED&I, which tends to have an (entirely appropriate) attribution to communities, such as LGBTQ+, BAME, neurodiversity or disability.
Whilst ED&I is undoubtedly important in the context of these specific communities – and there is lots of work to be done – recruiting candidates based on what they can bring to your business is good sense. This cannot be done without embracing the diversity in the recruitment market, in all its forms.
Creating high-performing teams is only possible if those team members can contribute their whole self, show and share their vulnerabilities, and openly support each other towards a common goal.
If you’re recruiting for cultural fit, those square edges that get shaved off when that metaphorical peg is put into the round hole – whether by recruiting to type or the candidate playing to type – are impactful to your high-performing team.
At the start, we said that everyone knows you shouldn’t put a square peg in a round hole.
So, my leaving thought is this: Should we look for more suitable round pegs or should we be looking to change our holes?