Does “Cultural Fit” mean “Just like me?”


It’s been fun lately to have some guest posts.  The most recent, Empty Seats by Becky Robinson, posed some questions related the tension that exists on work teams when there are open positions due to resignations or terminations until a replacement is hired.  I’m not going to dive specifically into any details on what to do in those situations because I think that topic is a little tactical for us and I’m not sure there’s much to debate.  However, the post did get me thinking about an issue that I’d like to get your take on.

Empty seats generally occur while we are searching for the perfect replacement.  I’ve been involved in one way or another in corporate recruiting for a long time and one of the roles we play is to help a leader identify a “profile” to to help us identify who is a good fit and who is not.  When we build this profile, it will include things like required experience, education, skills, etc.  It will also include things like behavioral style (technical versus social, formal versus informal) or competencies.  This info helps guide the recruiting team to attract and then identify through the interview process some candidates who would be a good “technical fit” for the job.  Our goal is to find someone who not only wants to do the job, but who has both the experience and disposition to really excel in the job as who they naturally are.

In addition to this part of the process, we generally talk about things like “cultural fit” and “chemistry” with the team and the boss.  This is where things can get a little sticky.  This usually boils down to “do I like the person?”  On the surface, this seems like a good idea until you think about it a little further.  First, we know that we will generally like people who are most like us.  So, without some thoughtful consideration about what cultural fit means, it is easy for most people interviewing for “fit” to simply chose people who are most like them.  But I think it gets even more sticky than that.  By definition, diversity means difference and difference causes conflict.  So, in organizations where conflict is avoided (which I dare say is most of them), could it be that hiring for cultural fit and chemistry is causing us to create homogeneous teams with diminishing diversity?

We both know the importance of diversity within teams and organizations, so I’m laying out the assumption that it is critically important.  And, further, I think that even people who value diversity can fall into the traps I just outlined in the hiring process.  So, the big question is this, is the way we hire today actually causing our organizations to become less diverse and as a result lower performing?  If so, what should be done instead?



  1. interesting post. I worked for an organization that believed in promoting from within. We had some complex positions that we were recruiting for and often could take 6 months to fill a role looking for the perfect fit. The EVP for the area would encourage the management to consider promoting someone instead and train the up in the time that it would recruit externally. This often solved the fit issue and allowed us to hire at them more junior end which was easier to fill.

  2. Jason,
    Thank you for finally speaking on this.
    I noted a couple posts back that there are real problems in the hiring phase within organizations.
    Those in charge within companies hire applicants that most often “look like them” or that have the same strengths as them.
    As this continues, an organization gets loaded with the same strengths, lacks cognitive diversity and becomes square.
    Instead, those hiring should look for people that fit the culture, but also look for individuals that fill the role and have distinct strengths that the organization is lacking. Only then will the organization become more well-rounded and begin its trend towards cognitive diversity.

  3. Great topic Jason.

    I think Diversity & Inclusion are fairly advanced ways of thinking and operating. As you point out, left to our own devices, our defaults are likely to run toward the self-reflective, whether that be individual, team or organizational. Even with years of research on the advantage of diversity in team outcomes and business outcomes, this default is hard for individuals and organizations to overcome.

    It is even more difficult when people are stressed. When anxiety is high we are more likely to go to our defaults and not notice our blind spots. This doesn’t come into play if you are a manager or recruiter who is not busy, stressed, under pressure, or otherwise anxious. But how often is that the case? Never.

    Given this, I counsel teams and individuals to do the work of managing their anxiety so they can stake out their own positions, avoiding group think. No, it isn’t easy, and yes, it is a lifetime of work. But structural, procedural, and technical interventions don’t really touch this level of our functioning (except in inefficient ways like forced process, quotas, etc.)

    If an organization is serious about this issue, it has to work at the individual and interpersonal levels, creating awareness in the organization of the results that they are getting and accepting that change starts at home.

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