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Have we been looking at 'cultural fit' all wrong?

“We’re looking for someone who’s a good fit for our team.”

Hiring managers say this all the time. But what is fit? What does fit look like? 

Man trying to work out how to get a square peg into a round hole.

Most of the time — especially when we are looking to hire someone — we put a lot of emphasis on cultural fit. We’ve got a round hole and we go looking for a round peg.

We have this sense that fit is about finding a match between the candidate and our team. Experienced hiring managers will ask a candidate questions and surreptitiously listen for clues in search of a match between the candidate’s personality and the culture of the team. They’re trying to decide if someone fits without ever talking about what fit looks like.

It will come as no surprise that fit is closely related to culture. But what is culture anyway? Culture is simply the personality of the group. It’s the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that animate the organization, bring it to life, and and guide its actions. Every collection of two or more people has a personality. Every group has a personality, ever group has a culture.

And yet, all of us are active members of a wide variety of groups which demonstrate a wide variety of “personalities”. We can be frolicking with our children at breakfast only to be deeply engaged with our colleagues before lunch. We can be laughing with our friends on Friday night, and singing along with the choir on Sunday morning. Human beings are highly adaptable creatures

We’ve got fit backwards. You don’t go looking for someone who fits. You start by articulating what fit looks like on your team and then go looking for someone willing and able to adapt.

Most of us are very adept at moving smoothly between wildly disparate situations. In each context we adjust our attitudes and behaviors to match those of the current situation. So it is with our teams and our organizations. ‘Fit’ is less about matching a set characteristics or personality traits and more about adapting to the personality of the group. 

The best way to ensure fit

Most candidates are capable of fitting into most organizations — if they want to. All it takes to fit into an organization is to:

  1. Understand and align yourself with the attitudes of the group.
  2. Honor and reflect the beliefs of those in the company.
  3. Engage in the behaviors of the team.

That’s it! If someone can do those three things, they can fit into the team.

In other words, we’ve got fit backwards. You don’t go looking for fit. You start by articulating what fit looks like and then you look for people willing and able to adapt — to ‘fit in.’

What if someone just doesn’t fit?

This is not to say there aren’t situations where people don’t fit — where we don’t fit. But 80%1 of fit is simply understanding what fit looks like. Once we know what is expected, we generally can — and do — adapt. Usually, it’s a matter of choice, not character.

You may be able to adapt to the culture but find yourself unwilling to do so. No problem. You don’t fit in that case. Move along. But if you’re willing and able to adapt to the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, then you can probably fit.

And yes, there are also occasionally exceptions, a small subset of people who do not fit — the 20% who cannot (or will not) adapt to the norms of the group. In that case fit is not possible and it’s best for everyone if they just move along. But the majority of the people people can fit as long as they know what fit looks like.

Next steps

Fit is about awareness and choosing to belong. It is not something that is hard-coded into our personalities. I propose that we rethink what we mean by fit.

Let’s be more clear on what fit looks like in our relationships and our organizations. Let’s articulate what fit looks like and then give people the opportunity to align and adapt. The results might astound us.

  • If you are a leader: Define fit for your team. Stop looking for round pegs to fit into your round hole and start looking for diverse and interesting people who can and will chose to adapt to your culture.
  • If you are a member of a team: Get with the program — i.e. get with your team. Align yourself to the attitudes, embrace the beliefs, and demonstration the behaviors of your organization. If this doesn’t resonate for you, or costs you too much of your soul, begin looking for an organization where you can more easily adapt.
  • If you’re job hunting: Get a read on the culture of the organization. Ask questions that draw out the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of the organization. Before you accept a position, decide if you are willing to adapt to the culture of that organization.

What does fit look like in your organization? What are some of the more prominent attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that define your culture? How do you adapt? Join in the conversation in the comments below.

1 The 80 / 20 split comes from twenty-five years of observations in a broad range of organizations and contexts. Further research may yield more refined results. 😉

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