A Framework For Understanding Cultural Fit

Michael Dean
A Framework For Understanding Cultural Fit

Airbnb allegedly asked an interview candidate, “When you walk into a room, what would be your theme song?” Companies, especially startups, are notoriously asking more and more seemingly ridiculous questions to assess a candidate’s cultural fit. However, without a clear universal definition of the term ‘cultural fit’, commentators have suggested that it might be a veil for discrimination in the hiring process.

In this tutorial, we will look at some definitions of organisational culture and fit, and go through the advantages and caveats of hiring for organisational fit.

In organisational psychology, person-organisation fit is described by Adrian Furnham as the “congruence between the norms and values of the organisation and those of the person”. In practice, those norms and values are hard to define.

One of the main reasons is because the relationship between a person and an organisation is dynamic. If we see organisations as a large, structured group of people, we can see how the behaviour of one person in the group impacts the rest, and also how group norms influence individual behaviour.

After the recent Libor rate fixing scandal, the subsequent Salz review revealed an incredibly toxic culture at Barclays. Organisational norms and values favoured short term financial performance, which was reflected in the employee bonus system. These incentives led people to continuously bend rules to the extent where cultural norms were directly at ends with written values.

Organisational fit is important, because if an employee feels that they are aligned with their organisation, they are more likely to stay for longer, to have better relationships with their peers and to be more productive. However, we need to draw a line between values and personality when speaking about person-organisation fit.

Shared values ensure that people can work in the same direction. No one can argue a case against employees who truly believe in the company’s values. Let’s consider values on an individual level, and how that might make us more predisposed to certain types of organisations. Eduard Spranger, a German philosopher, defined the following value attitudes:

  • The Theoretical, whose dominant interest is the discovery of truth
  • The Economic, who is interested in what is useful
  • The Aesthetic, whose highest value is form and harmony
  • The Social, whose highest value is love of people
  • The Political, whose interest is primarily in power
  • The Religious, whose highest value is unity

As we go through the list, we might have automatically assigned potential careers for each of those personality types, for example, the Theoretical would probably be a good scientist.

It makes sense that people with certain values are attracted to organisations that share those values. However, this becomes complex when we have preconceived ideas of the personalities that go with those values. For example, you might expect scientists to be introverted and ‘square’, as the stereotype goes. Prejudices might also be shared in organisational culture.

If we consider personality as being separate from values, homogeneity in an organisation is not necessarily a good thing. Groupthink is a phenomenon that describes what happens in a decision making process when a desire to conform leads to poor decisions being made.

The Bay of Pigs disaster under JFK’s presidency was attributed to groupthink, and even though some of the smartest minds in the world were involved in making the decision, the end result was dysfunctional. Groupthink occurs because people refrain from criticising a line of argument and voicing dissent in favour of keeping group harmony.

Another issue with cultural fit is that it might become a vehicle for discrimination, either purposefully or accidentally. If you hire people who you think are ‘like you’ and the rest of your organization, you might end up with a uniform workforce. A foreign candidate might be rejected because she doesn’t ‘fit in’, and while this might be true, it fuels the problem of marginalising minorities in the workforce. Practically, diversity is also important in better serving the needs of your customers, who are probably similarly diverse.

We’ll leave you with some practical advice on hiring and managing for cultural fit: Ask questions about a candidate’s values and how they fit in with your organisational values. When considering personality, don’t mistake a critical employee for being unpleasant – they might be the ones who point out the flaws in your strategy. Understand the importance of diversity, and ensure that the methods you use to assess cultural fit are neutral from gender, race and nationality. Make sure diverse personalities with shared values can thrive together for a cooperative, high-performing workplace.

Further reading

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