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Advice & News

January 3, 2020

What Matters More Than ‘Cultural Fit’


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Lack of skill is rarely a reason why job finalists are not selected or why new hires fail. People default to things like personality, attitude, and "cultural fit."

Recruiters may have adages like "Hire for culture, train for skill," but in higher education culture is sometimes exaggerated because institutions are protective of their reputation, which is currency for recruiting students and employees alike. Also, the skill disparity in higher education can seem smaller than other industries, especially when advanced degrees are required for entry and the belief that on-the-job training means that colleges and universities failed.

This further emphasizes things like -- what else? -- cultural fit. But what is culture and should people continue to blame the amorphous cultural fit when candidates and employees are deemed incompatible?

An institution's culture should be formed from its values, vision, and mission. However, you're likely to get either blank stares or inconsistent responses if you were to ask random people walking across the quad to cite these fundamental statements found in the "About Us" section of the school's website.

Culture is more than a set of stated values and beliefs; it's also a "tacit agreement to a set of acceptable behaviors," according to Cubiks, a talent management and assessment company. Cubiks conducted a survey that found that 84% of employers worldwide named cultural fit as a prominent factor in the hiring process.

Despite this, cultural conformity should not be a virtue. In his books "Originals" and "Power Moves," Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, provided salient views about culture and the dangers of cultural fit.

Grant said that hiring for cultural fit will result in "groupthink," which happens when people seek consensus and reinforce the status quo instead of challenging one another's perspectives.

"Cultural fit has become a new form of discrimination," said Northwestern University sociologist Lauren Rivera in her New York Times article "Guess Who Doesn't Fit In at Work?" "(Cultural fit) has become a catchall used to justify hiring people who are similar to decision makers and rejecting people who are not."

Instead of cultural fit, Grant said organizations should hire and reward employees on cultural contribution.

"Originality comes not from people who match the culture but from those who enrich it," Grant wrote in "Originals."

So how can you enrich an institution's culture and avoid becoming a cultural misfit? You can begin by asking these five questions that will lead to positive change:

What's unique?
"If you want to gauge the culture of a company, instead of asking what it's like, ask people to tell you a story about what happens there that wouldn't elsewhere," Grant said in "Power Moves." "(Ask the question), 'How is this organization different from all other organizations?'"

What's working?
By practicing what Grant calls "appreciative inquiry," people need to know what an organization is doing right and not just what needs to be fixed. Yes, every institution needs problem solvers to affect change, but accompanying them should be voices describing what's successful and expanding on it, rather than a chorus of complaints.

What's the cost of the status quo?
Grant said that people are generally positive about the "the way we've always done it" because, if they weren't, it would've already changed by now. To embrace more original thinking, Grant suggests highlighting the cost of not being creative and innovative rather than leading with the benefits of a change. For example, ask "Do we want to end up like so-and-so institution that didn't respond when enrollment declined?"

How have you grown?
"The most resistance in culture change often comes from people with fixed mindsets," Grant said. To avoid a fixed mindset, reflect on times when you've changed significantly, and then make a case for why change at your institution is possible. Managers can empower their employees to effect change by asking them to reflect on their growth as well. "(People) begin to generate reasons for why change matters," Grant said. "They end up being persuaded by somebody they already like and trust … themselves."

Which stories should we tell?
A common goal of all these questions is to induce storytelling. That's because culture can also be described as the collective story that employees tell themselves and others about their organization. Therefore, culture change can take place by deciding which stories you tell. "Culture stories are answers to universal questions: Is the big boss human? Will I get fired? Can the little person (make it) to the top?" Grant said. "People want to know if this place is safe, if it's fair, and if they have some control." Choose good stories, not complaints, and make sure they uphold your institution's values.