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Is your unspoken definition of “culture fit” actually hurting your organization?

Is it possible that your current approach in assessing a candidate’s ability to fit in your organization is actually hindering your growth and preventing your success? Can you clearly speak to what it exactly means to be a ‘culture fit’ in your environment? 

I see this phrase ‘culture fit’ get thrown around a whole lot in the tech world, and particularly in the startup scene; This idea of whether a candidate, an employee or your teammates are the right “culture fit” in an organization. 

In this post, we’re going to break down what we mean when we talk about whether someone is a culture fit, how the approach you’re using could actually hurt your growth and success, and what you should be doing instead.

If you prefer to read with your ears, you can check this out on the Rebase podcast by streaming below

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The “Culture Fit” Black Box

As some of you may know, when an organization is evaluating a potential hire, as part of the interview process, a representative of the company might assess as to the likeliness of a candidate being able to conform to the company’s culture and adapt to their surrounding environment. 

So, I want you to imagine a scenario where you’re interviewing somebody for a new position. Or perhaps a person who you recently hired in your organization. And you’re questioning whether this candidate or this new employee is truly a culture fit. And you start to wonder if this person has the capabilities to adapt to your company culture, BUT you never developed clear parameters to evaluate this determining factor. 

And most of the time in young companies, it remains to be a nebulous or undefined area to discern whether or not somebody is a culture fit. Eventually, the decision is usually influenced by somebody’s gut feeling on whether or not this person fits in. 

And that’s a best-case scenario. 

The worst-case scenario is the fact that saying somebody IS or IS NOT a culture fit? It’s just some go-to cop-out excuse to not hire somebody, or even worse to potentially fire somebody, because you or someone has subjectively determined that they’re just not suited to the organization.

So, I started to dig in and try to figure out what it actually means when somebody in a startup or a small business is attempting to determine whether or not somebody is a culture fit. 

Based on my research, plus what I’ve both seen and experienced: in most cases, someone in a decision-making leadership position is asking themselves one or more of the following questions (whether they realize it or not): 

  • Are they like me?
  • Are they like us? 
  • Are they similar to the rest of our organization in one or more observable ways?
  • Is this person going to fit in? 

Now, I want to place some focus on that language, because language is so important. And when you are trying to determine if somebody is a culture fit, most of the time, you’re deliberating as to how well they are going to fit in. And again, often without being consciously aware of it, we’re trying to find similarities in people to existing members of a particular team. 

This can be damaging in a lot of ways, because you’re trying to find someone who fits in with what you already have. You’re establishing that somebody’s level of cultural fit in your company is based on how well they are going to fit in with existing norms. And I’m here to tell you that fitting in is not the right approach, especially when you’re trying to grow a company. In fact, fitting in is the exact opposite of what you should be looking for if you want to find somebody who’s going to show up 100% and really bring their A-game. 

Now, why is that? 

Well, I’m going to defer to one of the experts on this.

Why “Fitting In” Is The Wrong Approach

Dr. Brené Brown, a multiple-time New York Times best-selling author and an expert on shame, vulnerability, and a wide range of other topics, has a very clear and concise differentiation between fitting in and belonging. 

She talks about how efforts at “fitting in” actually deter people from wanting to show up fully as themselves. Fitting in, in her words, is all about assessing and acclimating. Assessing and seeing how things currently operate and then conforming to the way things currently are. 

And if you’re “assessing and acclimating,” as she says, what are you thinking about? 

You’re going to be thinking about what you should say. What you should do. Who you should be. What you should wear.

You’re also thinking a LOT about what not to say, be and do. 

And if you’re constantly assessing and trying to acclimate, or as an employer you’re trying to understand someone’s abilities to asses and adapt, you’re basically telling them how not to be an individual. (How to assimilate and become part of the Borg, for all my Sci-Fi nerds out there.)

You are intentionally expecting somebody not to be themselves, and you’re asking them to sacrifice their individuality to then incorporate themselves to become a part of this collective ‘hive mind.’ And this is not what you want to do if you’re trying to hire a talented individual to bring their skills and expertise to make your organization better. 

I want you to really stop and think about a time recently when you felt a little bit uncomfortable being yourself. A time when you couldn’t show up as yourself. 

How well did you show up? 

How much of your true self, talents, abilities, did you show up with? 

How much of your opinions, of your intelligence, did you share? 

Whether you’re thinking of a social situation, a professional one, or maybe even when you went on a date recently. 

Thinking about this time you didn’t feel 100% comfortable with being yourself, how much of you really showed up? 

I’m guessing it probably wasn’t a whole lot. 

How many of you felt like you brought your A-game? Or did you maybe feel like you were being a little bit of someone else, and not yourself? 

Now take that, and apply it to these people that you are trying to gauge and judge on whether or not they are going to fit in. And try analyzing if you’re evaluating potential hires based on your idea of how everybody should act, dress, talk, or behave. Because if that’s the case, then you’re basically trying to shortchange people on being themselves and bring their A-Game.

“This Isn’t Your Fault.” — Science

Honestly, it’s not anybody’s fault, and it’s totally expected behavior. We tend to naturally do this. But why do we have this natural instinct to see if people are going to fit in or not, based on their similarities to ourselves? 

Well, Scientifically speaking, our brains are wired to protect us from harm and other threats. In the absence of real danger, we often allow our minds to manifest and create fake threats. We don’t have saber tooth tigers coming and trying to eat our young, steal our food, and kill us anymore. So when we’re looking to see if somebody’s going to fit in with our ideas of what normal should be and what our culture fit is, it’s just our brain responding to the environment—trying to protect any number of things. 

We’re trying to protect ourselves, first and foremost. We’ve got our identity and our reputation in the workplace. We’ve got this reputation that we’ve built up over time, and maybe part of that reputation is in guarding, protecting the culture of the organization. We feel a natural responsibility to protect the culture that we’ve built. 

Additionally, we’re also potentially trying to protect our team members. We’ve got these relationships with each other, the people on our existing team, that we’ve built up over time, and we want to make sure that we protect those relationships and those people. This means we’d want to ensure the new member coming in doesn’t feel alienated because they’re already a part of our team and a part of our so-called “culture.” Our brain is wired to try and protect all of that.

Lastly (but certainly not least), we’re also trying to protect our organization. Growth is a scary thing. And when you are looking to bring new people into an organization, or you’ve just hired some new people, you are trying to make sure that these decisions that you’re making are the right decisions and that you’re not putting the organization at risk. 

So again, by trying to protect ourselves, by trying to protect the people we work with, and in attempting to protect the organization, we are doing understandable things, and we are overly cautious. Which makes sense, and nobody would fault anyone for being protective of these things. 

But we have to be able to take a step back and determine if we are judging people and evaluating people based on whether they could belong in our organization, or whether we’re trying to force them to fit in.

And it’s super easy to get comfortable with these things that we’re protecting, especially when that comfort starts to feel particularly safe for us, and that is precisely the problem. 

What do I mean, when I say comfort and safety are the problem? Well, here’s where the problem is. 

As an organization, and as a leader in that organization, you want to grow. You want the organization to get from where it is currently, to some future, better state. And this is what you are trying to achieve when you assess candidates, new hires, or your existing employees on whether or not they are a culture fit. 

We all want to grow—any go-getters, any achievers, the A-players that we like to believe that we are. We are dedicated to and motivated by growing. 

But here’s the rub: 

There is no growth without change. 

Let’s let that really sink in.

There is NO growth without change. The two are inextricably linked.

If there’s been tremendous growth in your organization, maybe from when it was two or three people in a garage to where it is now, that growth has been remarkable, I’m sure. But it did not come without some drastic amount of change.

Think about this in terms of say, a professional basketball, football, or whatever sports teams you may be into. If your favorite team has ever gone from last to first, it’s experienced tremendous growth in the way that it plays the game. And that growth has not come without some significant change. 

Even individually, when you’ve experienced some growth in some area of your life — maybe you’ve moved on from a toxic relationship, or perhaps you’ve transformed your body, and you’ve lost a ton of weight and put on a bunch of muscle, or maybe you’ve experienced some significant mental or emotional or spiritual growth — I’m sure that growth has been amazing. 

But when you think about who you were before that growth, say a year prior, you’re probably not even remotely the same person you used to be. That development has not come without some significant change. Therefore, we have to make sure that we’re not afraid of changing whenever we’re trying to grow, whether that is in ourselves or in an organizational sense.

If It’s Not “Fitting In”, Then What Is It?

So, we’ve established that there’s no growth without change. And I hope that you will understand that if you try to resist the change that naturally accompanies growth (it’s coming, whether you like it or not), then you’re going to set yourself up for failure and you’re going to at BEST become stagnant. 

Most likely, instead of prospering, you’re not going even to stay exactly where you are, but you’re going to go in the other direction. 

Because if there’s one thing I’ve observed, it is that anything in your life is either growing or dying. You can’t just have things stay the same. 

If you are trying to achieve transformation in your body, for example, either you’re moving closer towards that goal or moving farther away. If you are trying to get emotionally stronger, or mentally stronger any given day, you’re either getting stronger or weaker, you’re progressing towards that goal, or you’re going away from it. 

There is no homeostasis where we just sit, and there’s neither growth nor death. So, I recommend you keep that in mind when you consider resisting the change that comes with growth. Then you’re just setting yourself up for failure and massive disappointment.

So, if judging whether somebody who’s going to fit into your little box is not the right way to approach culture fit, then what should you do instead? 

Well, I’ve already kind of hinted at it a little bit, but what I would like you to consider doing is asking yourself this question: 

Do I have an environment… have we created an environment where this person that I am going to hire (or this person that I have already hired) feels like they can belong?

You might be thinking, “What is this woo-woo ‘belonging’ nonsense he’s spouting off about?”

Well, as human beings, we like to believe a lot of times that we’re super independent… but the reality is that we are chemically and neurologically wired for belonging. Aside from fulfilling our basic needs for food and shelter, we need to feel like we belong, before we can do anything else and move forward in our home or work environment. 

Now, how does belonging differ from fitting in? They might sorta kinda sound similar, but they’re actually diametrically opposed. Yes, they’re opposites.

While fitting in means assessing and acclimating (assimilating into the Borg), belonging means that you get to show up exactly as you are without compromise. 

It means never betraying yourself for other people. 

It means not betraying who you are, being true to who you are. 

It means not going against your values and your principles. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that belonging allows you to be stubborn or obstinate for no reason. It is interpreted in the way that you can recognize whatever boundaries you may have in your life, what your principles are as a professional and as a human being, and not sacrificing those boundaries and those principles for anybody. THAT is what belonging means. 

There’s a reason that countless studies show that the top organizations where people want to work are universally described as those places that allow people to do what they call “bringing their whole self to work.” 

This means that, for example, if you are a musician or you have musical tendencies and musical talents, you get to bring that part of your personality into the workplace. 

It means that if you’re a bit of a jokester, then you can bring that sense of humor into the workplace. It means that whatever your interests are, whatever your principles are, whatever your values are, who you are as a person, you get to show up in the workplace as your whole self.

So What Is “Culture” Then?

As a result, in order to determine what your culture is, not just what you think your culture might be, I can start by telling you what culture is not. 

Now, I could probably write a series of posts or an entire book on on how you could develop a strong and healthy culture. But I’ll give you the short version, starting with what culture ISN’T.

Culture is not your benefits. 

Culture is not your perks. 

Culture is not ping-pong tables and free lunch and a barista on staff. 

It is not stereotypical jargon, like “fast-paced startup culture”. 

Culture is not tired, lame phrases and platitudes like “work hard, play hard.”

Culture is none of these things.

Hell, culture isn’t even a set of shared values. 

And that last one might have you thinking, “Wait, it’s not that one? I thought for sure it was the ‘values’ one.”

The best way I’ve ever heard company culture described is this:

Company culture, your culture as an organization is not a collection of shared values.
Your culture is a collection of shared behaviors. It’s how you treat each other. It’s how you treat your customers. It’s how you behave on a day to day basis. 

Culture is not just the values that you think you have, it’s the values that you demonstrate in your behavior as an individual and as an organization. Therefore, if you can think of your culture in terms of what your behaviors are, how do we treat our customers, and how do we treat one another? 

I think that’s a pretty good starting point for determining what your current culture is and whether this person, be they a candidate or a new employee, can bring their whole selves in and belong with that culture that you’ve set up.

In Closing

In closing, let’s recap briefly what we just learned. 

When we talk about culture fit, a lot of times we’re fooling ourselves into thinking that people have to fit in. That they must assess and acclimate to assimilate into our culture. And that being a culture fit means that they need to be a certain way, speak a certain way, dress a certain way, and behave in a certain way. 

The reality of what that’s going to do is that it’s going to hurt us because we’re going to discount or dismiss people who actually would bring a ton of value to our organization and potentially bring a ton of diversity and opinion and background into our culture. 

For this reason, I recommend taking a critical eye to what you mean whenever you were talking about or when you’re thinking, “Oh, is this person a culture fit?”

Ask yourself, am I looking for acclimation? Am I looking for assimilation? Or am I thinking about values and principles that we exhibit as an organization in our behaviors on a day-to-day basis? Not just the things we say we believe in, but the things we actually follow through on. 

And I hope that you will take some of these ideas from this post, write them down, and determine what you are thinking about regarding culture fit. Are you thinking about somebody belonging, or are you thinking about making them acclimate to the way things currently are? 

If you have important takeaways from this post, and I truly hope you have, I hope you’ll drop them in the comments for the rest of the class. 

I would also love for you to share this with somebody else who might gleen a nugget of wisdom or two, be inspired, or receive some sort of lesson from this. I’d love to get this message out. 

I’ve worked with some great organizations that have amazing cultures of behaviors they actually exhibit and actively tend to on an ongoing basis. And I’ve also seen and worked in plenty of places where culture meant a ping-pong table. 

Which one do you want to be?

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