Is ‘cultural fit’ a cop out? In general, yes.

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It has become a common practice to preach and practice the dogma of cultural fit. The premise is that in order for a company to be successful, individuals have to share values and behaviors to meld into an effective workforce. Therefore, it  would seem to be good policy to identify what those values and behaviors are, and to hire people who embody them, and in the case of current employees, to encourage them to adopt those values and behaviors and release those that do not — or cannot — line up with the cultural norms.


The new way of work is based on connectives — loose and shifting networks of highly autonomous cooperators — rather than collectives — tight and static hierarchic teams where people work in narrowly-defined roles.

There are a number of problems in this ideology.

First off, it avoids the basic question of people doing their jobs, versus fitting in with the norms of an organizational culture. Imagine the setting where a relative staid retail chain has hired a few  young designers to reinvigorate the company’s website, and the style of their interactions with other, older employees has unsettled the traditional ways of doing business, but website traffic is up. In such a case, the ruffled feathers of old school employees might be a small cost to pay, however, given enough backlash, a company’s management team might opt to do the dumb thing, and let the designers go.

I think we are starting to see the beginnings of a deeper work culture, one that transcends and replaces the shallow organizational culture of the previous, industrial era. In this new work culture, the individual fit within the organization culture is less of a consideration, because of several factors:

  • The new way of work is based on connectives — loose and shifting networks of highly autonomous cooperators — rather than collectives — tight and static hierarchic teams where people work in narrowly-defined roles.
  • The basic dictum of the new way of work is personal striving to achieve mastery and making the connections needed to create and join high performing networks. The values and behaviors that are critical are those that align with high performance, not supporting the biases of a collective.
  • The most creative networks are loosely coupled, with sufficient room and time for individuals to apply their skills according to their own judgments, and are not dominated by a small elite that direct others in their work. They encourage dissent, as opposed to mandating and enforcing consensus. Acceptance — or encouragement — of dissent one of the key distinctions between cooperative work and the thinking behind what is generally known as collaboration.

Acceptance — or encouragement — of dissent one of the key distinctions between cooperative work and the thinking behind what is generally known as collaboration.

So, fitting into this deep work culture does not translate into a slavish observance of shallow norms of value and behavior. On the contrary, it means taking on an increased level of responsibility to excel in your own work, and to be eager to affiliate with others that are doing the same.

In too many cases, fitting in has come to mean accepting established but unfair practices, and management techniques that are not grounded on science, merely folklore. This is why women continue to be paid 77 cents for every dollar men are paid in business, as just one example. Or why businesses continue to hire using techniques that are a poor predictor of future success in the company. Cultural ‘fit’ is too often just a cop-out — a way to segregate and eliminate the disengaged or would-be change agents pushing to shake things up.

This does not mean that we should be blind to people’s psychological orientation. For example, there are certain psychological characteristics that make some people more effective at customer support than others, all things being equal. So testing people for those characteristics as an indication of their likely success makes sense. However, simply testing for some hypothetical profile of skills or psychological bent without a similarly focused and proven connection to the sort of work a person might be doing just doesn’t make sense.


Cultural ‘fit’ is too often just a cop-out — a way to segregate and eliminate the disengaged or would-be change agents pushing to make shake things up.

The simple truth is that people are bad at hiring, evaluating, and promoting others. People suffer, alas, from a long list of cognitive biases, such as believing that people that are more like us — in looks, nationality, temperament, and background — are easier to work with, and we give that far too much weight rather than to the nature of the work to be done. And that is only one such bias.

In the near future, machines of inhuman intelligence — without our biases, at least — will sift through mountains and years of data, and apply algorithms involving far more factors than the human mind can juggle to come up with recommendations about who should work where and why. At the same time, the rapid transition to the fast and loose way of working will lead to a more migratory sort of career for most, a portfolio of jobs and positions, lining up with Reid Hoffman’s ‘tours of duty’ model.


In the near future, machines of inhuman intelligence — without our biases, at least — will sift through mountains and years of data, and apply algorithms involving far more factors than the human mind can juggle to come up with recommendations about who should work where and why.

Hoffman suggested (see Hire for “Tours of Duty” instead of pretending jobs are forever) that in place of the now-fictional lifetime employment ideal of the 1950s, employees and employers should instead agree on a short-term of employment — say three or four years — and at a determined point, perhaps with a year to go in the tour, the two parties would discuss either a new tour with the company or the possibilities or a tour elsewhere. In either case, the company is responsible to help the employee find that next tour of duty, no matter where, just as the employee has the duty to work hard everyday.


This transition to ‘tours of duty’ is a prime example of deep work culture displacing shallow business culture: where a person’s fit is no longer viewed as a one-time meshing like a gear in a single, solitary corporate machine, but instead constantly working to find and create the right setting that fits you, in an expanded, connected work ecosystem.

This transition to ‘tours of duty’ is a prime example of deep work culture displacing shallow business culture: where a person’s fit is no longer viewed as a one-time meshing like a gear in a single, solitary corporate machine, but instead constantly working to find and create the right setting that fits you, in an expanded, connected work ecosystem. Instead of fitting in, we should be looking for places to work that fit us. If that is the new meaning of ‘fit’, let’s use it. Otherwise cultural fit is just one element of the bad old ways that we should drop.

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