A client and I were recently discussing the difference between “Culture-Fit” and “Culture-Add” when it comes to bringing new talent into a business. Culture-fit is sometimes described as a poor cousin to culture-add. I’ve even heard it suggested that a culture-add candidate would drive change in an organisation more effectively. This has raised some good questions. Are culture-fit candidates too similar to the existing team? Will they have impact? Rather than focusing on cultural alignment, should the priority be bringing in someone very different who will challenge the norm?

The short answer – culture-fit must be your priority

Even if you are looking for an innovator with fresh ideas, they need to understand and work with your existing culture to ensure their new ideas stick. Culture-fit is not about preserving likeability or securing the same skills and abilities, or a continuation of what exists. Culture-fit is about engaging people who will thrive in your environment and want to be part of the vision of the organisation. If you want to drive change, just bringing in someone different will not be the answer. There is a lot more to it.

Evolution, not revolution

From my experience someone new to an organisation can help implement change as long as they can still relate to where the current organisational culture sits and understand where it needs to go. Evolution, not revolution is the answer. When it comes to changing opinions and behaviours, you can usually move 10-15 per cent away from what currently exists. Using a sporting analogy as an example, just bringing in an A-grade Division 1 player into a B-grade Division 3 team does not mean they will win the Division 1 premiership.

Two things happen when people are too far away from the existing culture:

  • They get rejected – they do not get any internal engagement, and will ultimately leave the organisation if they are seen to be too disruptive and radical
  • They get absorbed into the organisation’s existing range of behaviours. This can occur slowly over 12-18 months. They begin doing things the same way as everyone else does.

An example of this was when we recruited an Engineering Manager into a food manufacturing operation. There was some dysfunctionality across the leadership, and generally poor performance with costs blowing out, particularly in the engineering area, and an inability for the plant to meet KPIs. The new Engineering Manager had a track record of driving change. However, he struggled to get engagement from peers. After 12 to 18 months, he hadn’t really made much headway, and at the 24-month mark he was absorbed into the culture and operating the same way as the rest of the senior team.

I have also seen the opposite where someone has come in to specifically drive change only to leave in 12 to 18 months because the ‘culture-add’ they were trying to create was a step too far.

Culture-fit does not mean an absence of diversity

The other push back I encountered for culture-fit is the belief that everyone in the organisation becomes homogenous. It’s true we enjoy working with people we like, but that does not mean everyone on your team has the same perspectives. You can still have differing ideas and stimulating discussion about how to do things differently. In fact, there has been discussion recently around diversity being as broad as different cultural backgrounds and different views. This is all the stronger if aligned to the same vision, mission and values. It is up to the leader to encourage ongoing improvement through objectives and strategy.

Get the culture-fit right first and the rest will follow

An alignment of values between the people and the organisation creates culture-fit. Values are defined by behaviours. Behaviours determine culture. Attributes of wanting to improve, making an impact and contributing to a vision larger than themselves are all things most people aspire to. So, hire for where you want to go, but make sure they are engaged with your current culture or they will become frustrated and leave, or become absorbed.

A clear strategic vision, an engaged team and complementing values can boost productivity, engagement and loyalty – and means your new recruit will be the right person for the role for the long term.

Please get in touch if you would like to discuss further.

In the meantime, happy recruiting!

Ian Hamilton

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash