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Cultural Fit in the Workplace: How Personality Affects Hiring and Teamwork

by
Kerry Schofield
Jun 21, 2013, 6:43 am ET

introvert vs extrovertPeople differ in their personalities, attitudes, and values, and an understanding of our individual personality is profoundly important in maximizing our happiness and productivity at work.

We spend a third of our lives at work, and people are moving around from job to job more frequently, seeking a company that allows them to maximize their potential, earn more money, or achieve a better work-life balance. For some, all of these factors will be equally important, while others will prioritize them differently.

Whatever our priorities, work feeds into many different aspects of our lives — it influences our self-identity, self-esteem, and opportunities for personal growth. If work was just about making money, it wouldn’t matter so much where we worked. But for most of us, it’s about far more than that. This is where cultural fit comes into play. But what exactly is cultural fit? Organizational psychology guru Adrian Furnham offers this definition in his seminal academic textbook, “The Psychology of Behaviour at Work

“A fit is where there is congruence between the norms and values of the organization and those of the person.” (page 116)

Although, as Furnham goes on to discuss, fit is not only about the person and the organization — fit to coworkers and supervisor is also of importance (that’s what we’re working on). A simple example of how an individual’s personality might determine their preferences at work is shown in the diagram above (adapted from Furnham’s 2012 work).

The scale on the vertical axis shows the preference of each of the two personality types — introvert and extravert — for open plan versus separate cubicle offices. The introvert, who likes peace and quiet to get on with his or her work, strongly prefers the comforting seclusion of separate cubicles, and dislikes the noise and activity of the open-plan office. The higher the person’s introversion score (imagine it on a continuous line), the stronger their preference for the separate cubicles.

On the other hand, the extravert, who works best around other people, shows the opposite pattern — the more extraverted a person is, the more strongly they prefer the open-plan office. So what does this mean?

If the introvert ends up in an organization which only uses open-plan offices — or, even worse, expects all employees to attend riotous parties every weekend — this would be an example of poor fit, or strain. An extravert in the same environment would have a much higher level of positive cultural fit.

Of course, it isn’t nearly that simple. Nobody is just an introvert or just an extravert — every human being is a complex mix of interacting personality traits, all influencing each other. Measuring cultural fit is a complicated business – and there’s a large and mounting body of scientific evidence that cultural fit really is important.

Why Is Culture Fit Important?

Back in 1975, an organizational psychologist named John Morse conducted a study of the effect of congruence — fit between personality and organization — and employees’ self-ratings of competence. He split employees into two groups: one group was placed in a job using the usual procedure of the time, which did not involve any kind of psychometric testing. The second, experimental group was placed in a job which suited their particular personality were placed in more routine, stable positions.

The result? Those in “congruent” jobs which matched their personality reported feeling more competent. In other words, positive cultural fit can improve our self-esteem and make us feel more capable of carrying out our work to the best of our ability.

Good cultural fit is associated with many positive outcomes. A recent meta-analysis (a type of statistical procedure which achieves considerable power by combining the findings of a large number of studies on the same topic) by Kristof-Brown (from 2005) reported that employees who fit well with their organization, coworkers, and supervisor:

  • had greater job satisfaction;
  • identified more with their company;
  • were more likely to remain with their organization;
  • were more committed;
  • showed superior job performance.

Studies of cultural fit across many countries have also found a relationship between cultural fit and mental and physical health — so if your job fits your personality, you’re less likely to exhibit signs of depression, anxiety, and the like, and you might live longer.

The average correlation between good cultural fit and these positives outcomes is about 0.43, which means that cultural fit accounts for nearly half the variance between employees in job satisfaction. Employees are not the only ones who benefit from good cultural fit. Organizations get a happier, more productive person who is more likely to stay with the company for longer and work hard to help achieve its goals. They also potentially save a huge amount of money — hiring new employees to replace those who leave in despair as a result of poor fit is an expensive business.

It’s not just the company that benefits. Friends and family of someone who has a good fit to their workplace get a happier, more fulfilled person who doesn’t annoy them by constantly whining about how much they hate their job. The really big beneficiary, however, is society itself. The more happy, fulfilled people there are in a society, the stronger that society becomes. If organizations take an individual differences approach, assessing, and taking into account the specific personalities and values of their employees, everyone benefits. Those benefits are more than worth the extra effort and initial outlay. Giving people more control over their lives, more personal freedom to be the best they can be, is crucial in building a happier, freer, more fulfilled, and more productive environment for everyone.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

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  2. Jacque Vilet

    I appreciate this article. And it is refreshing to see the evidence has come from people that have the correct background to run rigorous testing to verify that evidence it TRUE.

    However, hiring just for cultural fit too often turns into hiring “yes men/women” — people that won’t rock the boat because they “fit” — or more likely people that all believe the same thing so that there is nothing but clones in the company.

    Today business needs to make sure it develops correct decisions. And that can only come by having some people play the “devils advocate” —- asking questions so that everyone thinks from all angles and all scenarios. Not arrogantly but asking to help make sure the decision/recommendation is not just “group think”.

    I’m not touting myself as a consultant here but someone that has seen the downfalls of “cultural fit”. I think there is more to this than just cultural fit. Like everything else one size does not fit all and recruiters need to analyze what the company needs versus just hiring for fit because all the articles they should.

    Just for the sake of playing devils advocate myself here is an article give another point of view: http://www.tlnt.com/2013/05/17/the-recruiting-dilemma-interviewing-for-cultural-fit-vs-innovation/#disqus_thread

  3. Keith Halperin

    @ Kerry. Thank you.
    1) I think a big assumption is that the existing culture is optimal and static- neither is probably true. It can probably be improved and it is probably changing as people come and go.
    2) I don’t think most candidates have the option to decide on a company based largely on a cultural fit- they go with who gives them an offer, for better or for worse.

    @ Jacque. Well said. It just occurred to me that the concept of cultural fit itself may actually show a bias toward extraversion, because its basis is on how people interact together (an extraverted preference) as opposed to how they perform as solo individuals (an intraverted preference.
    As an aside: the less you need people to interact closely F2F, the looser the cultural fit needs to be (within the overall bounds of civility, politeness, etc).

    Cheers,

    Keith

  4. Tracy Duffill-Wilson

    Interesting article and as someone who has experienced an organisation in pursuit of cultural fit, I see the positives in what the article is saying based on the evidentiary results of studies. I like your comments Jacque and Keith about this not being a one size fits all and organisational culture appearing to be based in extrovert behaviour but I believe it’s a pretty effective component to consider when recruiting. Obviously it’s not the be all and end all there are a range of things to consider like candidate motivation, organisational goals and the alignment between these things in regards to performance. Historically organisational culture has never been an easy thing to establish given, amongst other things, staff turn over and recruitment considerations over time and on that basis alone I think it wouldn’t be ideal to recruit based on cultural fit alone.

  5. Chris Motley

    Interesting article and I appreciate the comments as well. Our view is that there should be a consensus of what “culture fit” means. The term itself is ubiquitous, however, people mean very different things when they use it. We are firm believers in congruence/convergence but with respect to those things that actually lead to performance: one’s motivations, abilities and personality (not personality alone). We believe by connecting the convergence of these things to a role and an organization would significantly increase HR’s ability to increase objectivity in the hiring process and talent management.

    This view does not conflict with innovation, but actually enhances it. I’m sure we can agree anecdotally agree that many of our innovative ideas occur when we are in the shower, walking, driving, hanging out with friends – when we are most comfortable. With innovation being yet another ubiquitous term at the heart of many companies’ strategy – objectively understanding the current team based on culture as I’ve defined above, and using the data to drive the recruiting process seems like a winning combination. The more a company can define their employees as “knowledge workers” (professional services) the more important this point is.

    While my comments support a business that I founded, my role here is simply to promote the conversation and understand the point of view of practitioners. At the end of the day, we want to get it right given the significance of the decision for both job seeker and recruiters.

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  7. Kerry Schofield

    Thanks to everyone for the great comments! To pick up on a few points…
    @Jacques – completely agree that diversity is crucial to a flexible and innovative company, which is why our good.co system is geared towards helping people understand how their unique personality can contribute to their team and organisation; it’s important to recognise that complementary traits and skills are at least as important as congruent ones.
    @Keith – again, agree that organisational culture is not (and shouldn’t be) fixed. As with human personality, there are also more stable elements which we use to guide a typology of company culture which can then be used to assess cultural fit. Also agree that unfortunately, many people don’t have the option to choose the best fit for them – nonetheless, understanding how one does and doesn’t fit with their company culture can be tremendously useful in learning to thrive in any environment!
    @Tracy – there are certainly many other factors influencing cultural fit, and job satisfaction, aside from personality. I feel that personality is an increasingly important element in a world where the demand for choice, individuality and customisation are also increasing!
    @ Chris – great point; heterogeneity of definitions and models of company culture make it difficult to accurately assess. I hope that ongoing empirical and field research (such as we’re trying to do through good.co), will be able to contribute to a coherent, unambiguous framework for understanding cultural fit.
    @ Indiana – thank you! :)

    Thanks again everyone for all your insightful comments!

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  9. Keith Halperin

    @ Tracy: Thank you.
    @ Chris: could you elaborate a bit more? I’m not quite clea what you’re saying
    @ Kerry: I think greater knowledge and understanding of a a given environment is useful; however you can not thrive in ANY environment- some are too dysfunctional.

    Cheers,
    Keith

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