Is Organizational “Fit” Really a Good Thing?

Is Organizational “Fit” Really a Good Thing? 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Organizational fit (or cultural fit) is a topic that gets a lot of discussion, particularly in recruiting circles.  We strive to find people who will be a good fit for the organization–people who will quickly and naturally fall into the rhythm of the organization and how things get done around here.

This is no small issue.  As a person who has been in a couple of different organizations where I wasn’t a good “fit,” I can tell you that there is a high toll paid by the individual when working in a place they don’t fit.  The organization also pays a price and that price inceases the larger the role is where the misfit happens.

So, most organizations have decided that this is a recruiting issue.  The best way to achieve a fit is to hire the right people in the first place.  And I used to buy into this approach.  Hiring people who fit the culture and organization right out of the shoot definitely makes for happier hiring managers and less friction around new hires in the organization.

But here’s the problem.  It is easy to think of and practice cultural fit as meaning “walks, talks, thinks and acts like us.”  When we start selecting and hiring on this model, we are adding more of what we already have.  What we aren’t adding is diversity.  And the research of people like Scott Page and others is pretty convincing that if we care at all about innovation or problem solving, diversity is a critical component.  Hiring and managing for organizational fit feels a lot at times like hiring for homogeneity and that could actually be harming our organization’s future prospects.

“If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”

― Benjamin Franklin

What if, instead of working on the supply side of this equation, we started tackling the other side-the culture itself.  Organizational cultures operate like an immune system when left unchecked.  There are cultural antibodies that attack difference.  If you don’t fit, you feel it, often painfully.  Rather than trying to find more sameness, what if we conditioned our cultures instead to welcome variety and difference?  What if we started a program to vaccinate our culture so that it wouldn’t attack someone for not fitting in.

When I think about my own experiences where I was not a cultural fit, the friction and tension I felt  was rooted in the desire for acceptance and belonging.  The problem was lack of interest in these cultures to accept me as I was.  To belong, I was expected to change, to learn to fit in.  I think this is the norm based on the stories I hear from the people I meet.  And generally, the more we try to change who we are as individuals to fit in, the less happy and successful we are.  So, working to achieve cultural fit might actually be working directly against things we desire in our organizations like optimum performance.

So, as leaders and designers of organizations, I’d challenge you to step back from the conversation about cultural fit for a moment to consider what it means when we say that.  Granted, cultural fit achieves short term comfort, but I think it may be doing long term harm.  Perhaps what we truly need is not more cultural fit, but instead a different kind of culture that is welcoming, accepting, and creates feelings of belonging and inclusion for everyone who has the talents to help our company grow.  If you are ready to try on what this might mean in your organization, stop over to my colleague Joe Gerstandt’s blog and spend some time there reading about how to make this happen.

  • Jeffrey Cufaude

    Interesting take Jason. I think fit can be misapplied to create walls to difference as you suggest, but if your culture is one that embraces difference than seeking individuals who fit with it would indeed be a good thing. As you note, we’ve probably gotten a bit careless about fit and what we mean by it.

    I often use the Hoberman sphere as a metaphor for fit. The colored-beams that shape the sphere are the core values of the organization. You need to see yourself as able to embody them since they represent the organization’s DNA and identity. But how you bring those to life and the thinking that goes into doing so expands (just as the sphere does) with the contributions and unique perspectives of the individuals.

  • Bob Gately

    Jason, cultural fit is much like skills match, they are both required but you have missed the most overlooked component of job success, job related talent. We need to hire talent since talent cannot be acquired or imparted after the hire.

  • David Dalka

    What is your culture is not customer focused, sees self-preservation as job one, completely toxic and needs to be changed?

    You then need new attitudes (potentially new people and job specs as well) at the top to create that change. Too many people are hiring the wrong skills to do the wrong things for the wrong culture at present.

    Thank you or starting this much needed conversation. It needs to be much, much larger.

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