Your Culture is Killing You

Taped Shut Bronze Angel, 2019
Patina bronze
25 x 16 x 18 inches

If you’ve brushed up against corporate hiring practices lately, you’ve probably encountered the concept of Culture Fit—the idea that you should screen job applicants so that you only hire people whose beliefs and behaviors will integrate smoothly into your organization.

It’s true that hiring people who don’t integrate well with your company culture can be highly disruptive. If you bring highly-competitive people into a highly-collaborative environment, or order-takers into an initiative-driven system, the outcome can be as hard on your existing staff as it is on the misfit new hire.

However, Culture Fit can also be used as a proxy for discrimination. It’s been paraphrased as “hiring people you’d like to have a beer with” – which sounds nice at first, until you realize that being pleasant social company often has more to do with having things in common, but very little to do with a person’s ability to do great work. And if Culture Fit is used as an excuse to hire people who “look like you” it devastates any attempt at increased diversity. In turn, a lack of diversity on teams can lead to myopic and tone-deaf decisions about everything from advertising to product design.

But hiring for Culture Fit can lead to even worse outcomes. Overly focusing on Culture Fit could harm your company’s very future.

You’re Never Gonna Change

If you’re dialed in at all to the world of the megacorps, you may be noticing a lot of disruption lately. These are the companies that employ tens- or even hundreds-of-thousands of workers. They’re on the Fortune lists, as well as multiple market indexes. They measure their revenue in billions of dollars. Their fortunes move economies. And many of them have been flailing.

Maybe it’s the internet, maybe it’s the shifting global economy, maybe it’s those Millennials we get to blame everything on—but something is changing so that what used to work for these gigantic brands just isn’t working anymore. And in an attempt to appease their shareholders, many of them are openly admitting that change is necessary, and change is happening. As part of this, many large companies are now encouraging high-volume turnover in their employee ranks, and reorganizing at massive scale.

Unfortunately, many of these efforts are doomed to fail. Why? Because so many companies are trying to bring in new staff to fuel their disruption, without changing the way they hire.

Do You Welcome Your Disruptive Overlords?

You can count on this: the older and larger a company is, the more hidebound their hiring practices probably are. And the more constrained the recruiting options, the lower the chances of ever bringing in a new employee at any rank, who will have a chance of making big changes.

One increasingly common practice at many companies is to insist that all new hires have a “360 interview” or team hiring process. For example, a new IT Director candidate is interviewed by the VP she will report to, by other IT Directors, by the CIO, and by the IT managers who will report to her. And many of those same companies also have a unanimous hiring policy, where just one person on the hiring team can veto the candidacy.

When you’re looking to hire someone to step seamlessly into the shoes of their predecessor and mesh smoothly into your existing organization, that type of scrutiny can help to ensure that your new hire will be an excellent fit—culture and otherwise.

But what about when your organization is seeking to make big changes? What if your very survival hinges on your ability to do things differently than you’ve ever done?

If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.” – Jessie Potter

And even when all the hiring decisions are made with the goal of bringing in innovative change-makers, leadership can hold itself back by gravitating—sometimes unknowingly—towards the familiar and more-of-the-same.

Cases In Point

Let’s consider a few examples of how this could go wrong:

Example One

The top leadership at Company X has realized that they are struggling with time-to-market. Their newest critical projects are getting bogged down in the design phase. They decide to bring in some new talent with expertise in leaner, more efficient design methods.

The recruiters and the designated hiring managers source a small pool of talented design leadership with reputations for leading effective, fast-moving design projects in innovative ways.

The interested candidates are funneled into Company X’s hiring process. And as is standard in that process, the first round of interviewers are with practitioner-level employees. Designers who will work in the candidate’s department are asked to screen the candidates for foundational skills, to narrow down the list for the hiring leadership.

Based on their current culture and methodology, much of the screening these design practitioners focus on is familiarity and comfort with the various design processes, systems and tools that are currently in place. These same processes, systems and tools that are leading to the slow design process. These same ones that the new hires are being recruited to replace.

Whether the design practitioners are quietly threatened by the coming changes, or just don’t realize that disruptive change is the goal, it never occurs to them to consider a candidate who doesn’t know, love, and plan to embrace the systems already in place.

The result? Candidates who are unenthusiastic—even dismissive—of old ways and slow methods are the first ones screened out. The candidates who do make it through the early screening are the ones who are compliant and amenable… a Culture Fit… and not disruptive or innovative at all.

Example Two

Company Z is a young company entering a major growth phase, and they need to rapidly expand their leadership. Among other things, they need to bring in a CMO, CIO, and CDO to transform their marketing and technology.

But because they’ve never had these roles before, they don’t know what a successful candidate will look like. As with many small young companies, the company culture is heavily built around the personalities of the founders. Both founders are highly-educated white men in their early thirties. They credit their education, their hands-on-skills, and their status as “digital natives” as being key to their personal success. So they assume that the right people for the role will also be younger people with relevant degrees. They insist that the CIO have a Computer Science degree, the CMO have a marketing degree and an MBA, and the CDO be a college graduate with application programming experience.

By screening out candidates who don’t fit their culture—young people with lots of formal education in their field and hands-on skills—they ignore a large swath of talent. They end up with a CMO who has spent more time in school than in the workforce, a CIO who knows more about how to build software than how to buy it, and a CDO who won’t consider any digital products that aren’t written in his preferred programming language, regardless of overall value. While among the candidates who are screened out are a CIO with a finance degree and a solid understanding of return-on-investment, a CMO who started her career as a sociology professor and is an expert in influencing human behavior, and a CDO who never finished high school and has been working full-time with the internet since it was new.

Their focus on Culture Fit has led them into hiring mediocracy, when they wanted transformation.

Disrupt Your Disruption

Few of us are in a position to change the trajectory of a global enterprise, or even a startup. But there are probably aspects of your role from which you can fight back against an unhelpful emphasis on Culture Fit.

  • Subvert your hiring processes

    When bringing someone in to be disruptive and innovative, make a case to your recruitment decision-makers that you need to follow a different protocol for this particular role.

  • Recruit the troops

    When using team hiring practices, bring all the members of your hiring troop onboard with the innovative plan. Make sure they know that you are seeking change-makers this time around.

  • Play the Long Game

    If your corporate protocols make it truly impossible to hire innovators, look for other ways to bring innovation. Partner with vendors who are able to hire the disruptors you can’t. Bring on a potential new leader for a six-month consulting project so your in-house team can see first-hand what she is capable of.

  • Change from Within

    Who’s to say new talent are the only people who can disrupt the old ways. You may have employees already on board who are itching for the chance to make some disruptive change. They may only need to be empowered and unleashed to bring their own fresh thinking—to your processes, to your policies, and perhaps to your culture itself.

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