“Cultural Fit” Hasn’t Been Working. What About “Culture-Add?”


In the last five years, we’ve increasingly understood that culture matters a lot. In fact, The New Yorker profiled Amazon and Jeff Bezos—arguably one of the most successful companies of the past two decades, if not the most successful one—and much of the article wasn’t even necessarily about their one-day delivery or logistics. Instead, it was about how they built their culture around 14 key principles, and then hired around those principles to establish “cultural fit.”

In part because companies that do $386 billion in revenue during a pandemic seem to focus their talent acquisition around “fit,” the notion of “Hiring for cultural fit” has been a big topic of the past decade. But a focus on hiring for cultural fit can encourage bias, with others arguing it creates a culture of groupthink, whereby new, fresh ideas are hard to come by. DEI professionals are usually weary of the term because it implies keeping people out of your organization for vague, non-data-linked “He/she seems like us!” reasons. “Cultural fit” very rarely signals inclusion.

So why do we continue to hire for “cultural fit?”

Broadly speaking:

  • We assume someone who shares similar qualities as our current team will inherently succeed in the organization.
  • We can be lazy, especially around hiring.
  • It’s an easy way to maintain the status quo. While leaders often talk breathlessly in all-hands meetings about innovation and change, many actually prefer the status quo. It’s easier to manage a status quo environment, day-in and day-out.

But there might be a path through: hiring for “culture add.”

What is “culture add?”

Instead of finding someone who fits into your culture, i.e. potentially a biased hire, find someone who is a bit different and would thus add to your culture. Organizations like Facebook and Pandora have tried this approach, as detailed here and here. Facebook restructured their interviews to focus on alignment with their five core values and developed a “managing unconscious bias” training program, which they’ve since made available to the public. While this training is not mandatory, almost 100% of senior leadership and over 75% of non-leadership employees have voluntarily completed the courses.

We pulled apart the mechanisms involved in this idea in a recent webinar with Dr. Valerie Purdie-Greenaway, who heads up the Laboratory of Intergroup Relations and the Social Mind at Columbia University (she’s also a regular contributor to NLI’s work). In short, when you put people together who think differently, what results is increased “Cognitive Elaboration,” or deeper thinking approaches where you spend more effort to explain your ideas, illustrate their meaning, and connect them to related ideas.

The outcome of this, as we wrote in Harvard Business Review back in November 2016, is that diverse teams literally are smarter. Teams have a collective IQ, and when that team is diverse, their IQ goes up. Major caveat, though: that only happens if the team allows people to speak up and there is a good amount of what’s called “Turn Taking.” So along with diversity, inclusion matters a lot.

Factor to keep in mind: visible diversity. The above is not an excuse to hire people who look the same but think differently. You need a mix of cognitive and visible diversity. Visual diversity has notable benefits, including:

  • Identity diversity can achieve cognitive diversity
  • Employees care about identity diversity
  • Clients and customers care about identity diversity
  • Investors and governments are starting to care about identity diversity

Another factor: diverse teams won’t necessarily feel smarter or more effective when you’re deep in the throes of working with them. Studies have shown that diverse teams make people feel more uncomfortable, but also less effective, than homogenous teams—but the diverse teams actually perform better.

If you’re going to tell your managers to hire for culture-add, make sure they expect that it might not feel as productive as when your team all thinks alike and you all feel like grabbing a beer together. If managers just follow their feelings, and ‘trust their gut’, that would lean the manager towards hiring more for cultural fit as opposed to culture add, and the manager might not even be fully aware he/she is doing it. A good amount of bias is unconscious.

How could you effectively hire for culture add?

It’s not easy, but it can be done. A few steps—operationalized in an NLI’s SELECT solution—can help you move in the right direction towards hiring with significantly less bias. They involve pulling apart the three central aspects of hiring: reviewing the resume, interviewing, and making the decision, and addressing the different biases that can occur at each stage, with just the right bias-breaking strategies based on neuroscience.

While SELECT can help your organization build just the right habits at scale, there are some other nuances to hiring for culture add to consider:

  • Understand and define your culture. This would be the logical first step. Know what your culture is. But that doesn’t just mean words on a wall or anything. It means understanding how work gets done, what is valued, what the decision-makers value about the brand internally and externally, etc. What could get a person fired vs. get them advanced? Sometimes that’s a simple question that helps you understand where the real values lie.
  • Perform a gap analysis. Businesses do this all the time for products or financials. Do it for people. What areas are you lacking in? This means both talent-wise (skill sets) but also attitude-wise. Do you have too many yes men? Do you have too many “inside the box” thinkers, as opposed to zany idea people? Do you have big picture thinkers, as well as people who obsess about details? Where are your gaps?
  • Once someone is hired, don’t try to fit them into a box: Watch out for “We’ve always done it this way.” If employees begin to see a little leeway in how questions are asked or problems are considered, they will feel their own ability to be “culture add,” and even recommend your organization to their former colleagues. You need to walk the walk and talk the talk here. You can’t just say “We hire for culture add!” and then internally penalize people with new, different, additive ideas. Some of the highest-functioning organizations will take a CFO and put them over HR for a period, or move someone from Operations into Marketing. These employees bring a fresh perspective and a desire to learn the new functional area and be seen as an excellent contributor within it. They can drive a good amount of change and break a silo out of potential doldrums.
  • Follow the science, experiment, follow the data: Since you moved from “culture fit” or “pre-existing skills” to “culture add,” is the quality of hire better? What can you point to? Turnover and retention? Show the decision-makers why this approach is better. Do experiments, collect data, try more experiments, and keep following the data. It’s called science, and we believe hiring should have more of it.

The bottom line

Hiring is increasingly becoming more of a science, but it’s still an inexact one at best, and many personalities and assumptions can color the process. What should guide everything is that you want the best people for your business, now and in the future.

This is an interesting time for work in general. As COVID starts to get under control, we’ve got various options for our organizations, with the easiest being “the way we always used to do things,” which means urban core offices, meetings, calls, unscientific hiring processes, and the like. But since we’ve all just experienced so much profound personal and professional disruption, this could and should be a moment where we adjust our ways of thinking and doing—and one aspect of that is considering culture-add as opposed to culture-fit.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

Author: Dr. David Rock

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