Why you don’t want cultural fit in your business

We all seem to be on the lookout for evidence to back up our instinct that culture and values impact heavily on organisational success. There are plenty of studies that show a link, though whether it is a correlation or causation often remains a moot point. Examples of companies with strong values and cultures abound, and I've worked in a couple that are often cited. Nevertheless, trying to find a way to quantify them is notoriously tricky. It is much easier to find a way to create a measurement around values than one for culture. When working with clients on their engagement data, I created a method to understand to what extent business had a ‘values gap’; how consistent were their stated values and the behaviours that were exhibited. This provided my clients with a a useful guide on how their employees’ experience of the business and how the reality differed from what leaders wanted, expected and experienced themselves. It was a great starting point, but by no means the whole picture.

Trying to find a way to measure culture is much harder. Stated values can be preset and predefined; you often see them written up on walls and talked about in company meetings. These values are either adhered to or not; many companies have values awards to congratulate people who have demonstrated the values to reinforce ‘good’ behaviour. These values either exist or not, it is up to everyone’s behaviours as to what the real values in any organisation are. In a similar way, culture lives and breathes - it constantly shifts and adapts based on the environment, the people and their contribution. It can be observed but very hard to measure. It feels a bit like measuring at a quantum level - it often doesn't seem to make much sense, it can be elusive, and the mere fact of trying to measure will alter its state. Whilst culture and values are closely related, they are not the same thing. The importance of working, defining and measuring culture and values comes back to what are you trying to achieve. In most cases there are two reasons why organisations focus on them:

  1. An innate sense that you want a motivating and positive place for employees to come to work, feel part of something, and give their best.

  2. The belief than creating a positive culture and 'good' values will make the business more successful.

Most companies take this seriously, so it reinforces the belief culture and values impact on performance. Indeed, why would anyone bother if they didn't believe in a link? Your business will have values and a culture, whether you do anything about it or not. If you believe it is important, you're better off trying to understand and impact them positively rather than let them developed unchecked. However, many fall into the trap of trying to create consistency in both, and this can be a big error or judgement. The danger of cultural fit It has to be right to define, measure and track your company values. In any relationship, whether that is one-to-one, group, or an organisation you are going to work better with people who's values are similar to yours. Values fit is an essential element of creating effective teams and businesses. Imagine getting married to someone with completely different values to you - it's unlikely to work.

The same is not true of culture, and trying to create culture fit can be a fatal mistake. Seth Godin, in his seminal book Tribes, argues that creating something for tribes is the start of success. Typically a tribe may be considered to be culturally similar, but actually a tribe is a just group of people connected to one another and connected to an idea.

There are studies, such as those present in the Harvard Business Review, which show homogeneous cultures increase efficiency and coordination. It also suggests that at an individual perspective, strong cultural fit led to more promotions, more favorable performance evaluations, higher bonuses, and fewer involuntary departures. However, Stanford’s study by Manian and Potts demonstrated that employees who could quickly adapt to cultural norms as they changed were more successful than employees who exhibited high cultural fit when first hired.

We know that diversity brings creativity and that helps you eliminate blind spots. As Matthew Syed reveals in Rebel ideas, the precise reason some organisations failed was down to cultural homogeneity. It meant they couldn't see what was right in front of them and it led to massive mistakes being made. Cognitive diversity and cultural adaptability are more important for success.

Values fit and culture add

If you do not strive for values alignment you are going to struggle to create meaningful trusting relationships. Imagine you and your partner's values are not consistent. It's going to be near impossible to be together. Values fit is important. Whilst they often get confused, that same is not true for culture.

es, there are benefits in some situations for culture fit such as the speed of agreeing things and getting stuff done. However, in the long term, just like a narrow genetic make-up, you’ll create defects and systemic problems that are much harder to resolve. In a culturally diverse business, whilst you might not have the same cultural references, with a a shared set of values, it can be overcome.

With your teams, ask “how can they bring their true self to work? When recruiting, the question to ask is “how will you add to the culture?” When people try and fit in, they hide part of themselves. That lack of authenticity will eat away at them. When people can share their experiences and be free to express themselves, they are more productive, more creative, more valuable, and more engaging colleagues.

Businesses that serve varied audiences actively need to add to their culture and have a wider field of reference. Resolving this is not a politically correct or token gesture, it's critical to the success of almost every organisation. So don’t look for culture fit, always look for culture add. That way you enrich your business, inject it with innovation, diversity, a greater level of understanding and a better chance of success.