A case against “cultural fit”

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A lot of leaders like to discuss their “culture,” along with other fluffy concepts (suitcase words) like “mission, vision, purpose,” etc. Most of these words don’t mean anything at all. They can sound good in a speech, but unless they are actually lived at the place day-to-day, it’s all bullshit. We all know this. It’s just a question of how willing we are to admit it.

So yesterday I’m up in DC for a recruiting mini-conference, and this guy Torin Ellis is moderating a few panels. He seems pretty cool. One of the better things he said was this: if you want to really understand how a company works/runs/what is lip service and what is not, ask to see the travel and meeting schedules of the executives. Most companies would never give you this, of course, but if they did, right there you know what matters and what doesn’t. Most guys (still predominantly men) who come to run companies only take meetings or travel around revenue streams, business development, and partnerships. This is logical. I’m not knocking them for it. It’s what they are compensated on.

But that’s the stuff that matters.






Revenue partners?

New sales channels?

Product launches?

Off-sites where you can get ripped?


So here’s the deal: we talk a lot about “the war for talent” (which is actually now a war on talent) and needing to find people with the “right cultural fit.”

But Problem A: “cultural fit” doesn’t even matter to the people saying it.

Problem B: the term has no concrete definition.

Problem C: it’s not even what we need to be looking for.

What should we be looking for?

Here’s the research we will be using herein, and here’s how said research was designed:

In a new paper, he and three coauthors — Sameer Srivastava of the University of California, Berkeley, and Govind Manian and Christopher Potts of Stanford — gathered more than 10 million internal emails from a technology firm sent between 2009 and 2014. They used linguistic analysis to monitor cultural fit over time among employees. (Language use is intrinsically related to how individuals fit, or fail to fit, within social environments.) Individuals were measured against those with whom they had the most frequent communication.

Using language fit is important here. Vocabulary is so essential to work. Each silo/department tends to speak a different way: different acronyms, different processes, different abbreviations, etc. If you don’t quickly adapt to your silo’s way of conversing, you will be left behind (considered an afterthought) very, very fast. This has happened to me at a bunch of jobs, actually.

And here’s what happened:

While an employee’s cultural fit at the time of entry was loosely connected with outcomes — those who fit well from the outset tended to perform well — a much more powerful predictor of success was an employee’s ability to recognize and internalize standards. “We find that what predicts who will stay, who will leave, and who will be fired is not so much initial level of cultural fit as much as their trajectory, the degree to which they adapt,” Goldberg says. “There are important differences between individuals insofar as they are capable of reading cultural code and shifting behaviors accordingly.” The authors refer to this malleability as “enculturability.”


So why is this the case?

Simplest answer: work is about control.

People want you to fall in line with how they view the company and the day-to-day activities.

That means towing the line, adjusting how you communicate, and doing things their way.

They want you to become indoctrinated, in other words.

That’s all this study is really showing.

When you don’t adapt — i.e. when you try to be yourself, in other words — the likelihood is you get fired, or become so disengaged that you’ll exit anyway.

Is there a takeaway for hiring?

The good way to say it would be “you need people with self-awareness who can adapt to the situation around them successfully.”

The bad way to say it — which many bosses would probably nod in agreement with — is “you need people who will give up themselves to fit in to this patchwork of people and try to be financially successful as a result, but do so without ever speaking up or pushing back.”

That’s the bullshit element of this study above: it’s noble to root everything in linguistics, because that feels very academic and all that. But all the linguistic analysis stuff seems to mean is “Did you speak and present and not push back in a way that didn’t threaten your boss?”

Again: work is largely about control and protecting whatever perch you have. If you can’t adapt to that at many places, YOU GONE. It’s that simple.

So no, don’t look for cultural fit. Don’t even speak about it. It’s meaningless. Look for adaptable people who know what it takes to be successful within your specific model of people theoretically working towards a common goal.

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