THE BLOG
06/05/2018 06:41 SAST | Updated 06/05/2018 06:41 SAST

The Myth That Is Culture Fit

Adam says that hiring on culture fit is a great recipe for groupthink, which favours similarity and weeds out the diversity of thought.

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OPINION

When job seekers are looking for employment, they are told to research the company — know what they do, who they work with, who is in HR and above all, to find out about the company culture. The company culture is the collection of values and ethos that the company operates by and the candidate should be certain they can align with them.

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review by Patty McCord, who was the chief talent officer at Netflix for 14 years, "What most people really mean when they say someone is a good fit culturally, is that he or she is someone they'd like to have a beer with," which is really the truth.

Adam Grant is an organisational psychologist and a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, which is one the top business schools in the world. He recently started a podcast called Work Life with Adam Grant which is in partnership with TED, and one of the most interesting episodes was on the subject of "Trusting People You Don't Like".

Patty and Adam in their own ways both say that a focus on hiring and working with colleagues with a high emphasis on culture fit can lead to a lack of diversity in the workplace, as people like to hang out with people who have a background that is similar to their own.

Culture Fit Has No Place In South Africa

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In a country like South Africa that is still navigating the effects of a past marred by segregation, culture fit should not be a consideration in hiring, retention and promotion of employees. We live in a country where there is a minority that still controls the levers of the economy.

This makes the Black Management Forum relevant to the business community, as it is active in voicing its approval and disapproval of corporates in the transformation of their leadership. The unemployment rate last year was at 26.7 percent, which means that 5.88-million are not working — and you don't need to be the statistician-general to figure out that most of these people are black.

This democracy is 24 years old, which means in many cases the black people coming into the job market are the first to graduate in their families, so they do not know the nuances of corporate South Africa from their parents. Unlike their white and Indian counterparts, they have not been groomed to "play the corporate game", because the script we were given at university was "working hard will get you to the top" — and it worked in university, where those who studied hard got the best results and cum laude degrees.

Apartheid was a system that was put in place to keep different people apart and keep people who were similar together. Culture fit would perpetuate this system in which people only want to work with those who are similar to them — for example, those who went to the same universities and private schools, or share their religious beliefs, worldviews or skin colour.

The corporate culture in South Africa is white — so anything different is seen as microaggressions or counterculture. Wearing natural hair or a doek, speaking vernacular, having an accent (whatever that means) are all things which may make certain groups feel uncomfortable, so they try to regulate it by having rules like "Ladies, please keep your hair neat and professional looking." This is why black people live for the weekend, because it is often the only time when they can be themselves.

It's my belief that black people have not been told that work is something to be enjoyed, but rather to be endured. We saw our parents going to work and coming home in the evening after travelling long distances — it involved pain, humiliation and sacrifice. Now we arrive at the workplaces with this embedded in us and a culture we need to squeeze ourselves to fit into.

Contribution Over Culture Fit

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Adam says that hiring on culture fit is a great recipe for groupthink, which favours similarity and weeds out the diversity of thought. The saying goes "groupthink leads to group sink"!

Rather than culture fit, companies need to focus on cultural contribution. Stop looking for people who match your culture, and find out what's missing from your culture — then bring in people who can enrich it.

Recently Starbucks found itself on the wrong side of society and social media when a store manager called the police on two black men who were waiting for a friend in the shop. The men were arrested with no apparent charge and it led to serious social media and public backlash. In response, Starbucks leadership decided that on May 29 2018 all U.S.-based shops will be closed so their 175,000 employees can undergo training on racial bias.

If a behemoth of a company like Starbucks, which has shaped society's relationship with beverages, can take such a drastic step that will see it losing millions in sales for the day, it must be important. It values its culture and ethos so much that it wants to find ways to keep enhancing it and growing its base of diversity.

The rainbow nation rhetoric is a fairy tale, but if we want to transform this country into the South Africa we believe it can be, then we will have to rely on each other. If you want to see your company grow and succeed, it has been less about working with people you like, and more about working with people you can rely on.

Cecily Cooper, an associate professor and trust expert from the University of Miami, says that in the workplace trust is based on two fundamental factors: Competence and character.

Competence is a belief that the other person has the requisite skills and ability to get the job done. Let's talk quickly about training — how will young black professionals get the skills to be competent if they aren't trained?

Daniel Coyle, the author of "The Culture Code: The Secrets Of Highly Successful Groups", says that leaders must find ways to generate closeness with their team by asking them deeply personal questions about anything and everything. People need to be vulnerable in order to build trust. Friday month-end drinks and associate away-days won't cut it, because it's friendly interaction — and frankly, people come for the food, so they can head to their next location.

In conclusion, this does not only apply to employees, but also to the service providers companies choose to work with. There are a number of black-owned companies that are competent to deliver on tasks and are run by people of high integrity and good character. Companies must be willing to step outside the comfort zone that will ultimately become the kiss of death, as we are living in a society that demands more.

And also: black twitter is watching!