In the 1980’s, business leaders introduced a new awareness of the term “office culture.” On the virtuous side, this meant valuing employees as human beings, not just machines that completed tasks. Businesses began to see that people stayed in jobs longer and were more productive if they felt that they belonged. Having a best friend at the office became a likely indicator not only of job satisfaction but performance as well.
Management started deliberately hiring for “culture fit,” favoring candidates who matched their company’s DNA and would fit in well with the team. Over time, this often led to a preoccupation with personal attributes. Criteria such as “Let’s see if they are someone we can have a beer with” became part of the candidate selection process.
The shadow of culture fit emerged in the form of a bias toward homogeneity. This harms workers, candidates, and businesses as a whole by creating an environment that stifles innovative thinking.
[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]
How do you avoid this trap? Change your mindset from “culture fit” to “culture add.”
What is a culture add mindset?
In contrast to the culture fit mindset, which seeks to hire and retain more of what is already working for you, culture add focuses on gaining valuable elements that your culture lacks. In other words, culture fit preserves comfort and familiarity, while culture add looks for people who value an organization’s standards and culture, but also bring something different that positively contributes to your company. The hiring question then shifts from “What is this person lacking?” to “What can this person bring to the table?”
More of the same is less
When most jobs involved learning and repeating known tasks, simply adding more workers with the same skills was enough: If 10 assembly workers can build one car in 20 hours, for example, then 20 workers could build it in 10.
As work becomes more nuanced – solving intractable operations problems, for example, or keeping clients happy – simple scale no longer works. Solving novel problems requires many perspectives rather than many hands. If you hire to match the personalities, backgrounds, and viewpoints that are already present in your organization, you are actively selecting against your chances of success.
What is culture fit bias?
The real dark side of a culture fit mindset is that it reinforces any biases that may exist. If your current culture is composed of mainly twenty-something male computer programmers, hiring for culture fit means you are likely to hire more of the same and exclude candidates – even highly promising ones – who do not fit the current culture. Culture fit at its worst justifies prejudice and preference, leading to discrimination and unfair treatment of anyone who does not fit a preconceived cultural mold.
Culture add is not about quotas
It’s important to recognize that culture add is not about checking the diversity box (your diversity efforts should not involve checking a box anyway). Hiring people of different demographics may help increase diversity, but it will not add to your culture if they all think the same way.
So don’t ignore factors like race, ethnicity, and gender - but do look beyond them and think about the viewpoints that make up your current culture, like world experiences, or beliefs about technology and the role of business. Culture add is as much about how a candidate looks at the world as how the world looks at them.
How to make the culture add hiring leap
Embracing culture add can be uncomfortable - especially if your company has historically focused on culture fit. You won’t – and maybe shouldn’t – go all-in at one time, but actively move the needle a little at a time and see how your hiring approach changes. Here are some tips:
- Hire “weird” people. Brilliance often masquerades as eccentricity. Actively look for people who see the world differently than you do. If you are a hiring manager, be aware that a tendency to hire those that you are comfortable with has probably resulted in a team that looks more like you than it should. This does not mean populate your team with loose cannons - stay true to your company values, but be clear on what they are and what they mean.
- Recruit from outside your field. Don’t limit your search to job fairs and recruiting sites that specialize in turning out candidates for specific roles. Professions, just like all culture groups, tend to develop at least some degree of constrained thinking. Of course, new hires need to have the requisite hard skills, but different professional and educational backgrounds can offer surprisingly transferrable insights. Some of the best developers I’ve ever worked with came from design schools. At least one brilliant IT manager was once a philosopher. Make it a choice rather than an exception to venture off the tried-and-true path.
- Learn to spot positive deviance. If you’re trying to get a particular result, start by understanding all the things that stand in the way and then systematically remove them if you can. Or look for someone who is getting the results that you want and learn what these “positive deviants” are doing differently. This naturally forces you to reconsider what you think you need to look for in your next hire - and helps you see what qualities are actually making the difference elsewhere.
Culture and corporate values will always be critical to the success of any business. Moving from culture fit to culture add shifts your recruiting efforts from defensive to proactive – and makes your company culture ready for the future rather than constrained by the past.
[ Want advice from top CIOs on solving talent challenges? Get the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: IT talent strategy: New tactics for a new era. ]
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Keep up with the latest advice and insights from CIOs and IT leaders.