How to Measure Cultural Fit Up, Down, and Sideways

Feb 10, 2012

Here’s a link to a Forbes magazine article that was pushed to me last month (January 27, 2012) by LinkedIn Today, highlighting why 46% of all new hires fail. The point of the article was to introduce a “radical” new approach to selection based on Mark Murphy’s new book Hiring for Attitude. The key point of the book and the article is that lack of proper attitude, not skills, is the primary contributor to weak performance. The author is only partially right.

For one thing the idea proposed is far from radical. There have been many other books over the past 10-15 years including the Amazon best-sellers Hire With Your Head (for full disclosure — this is mine) and Top Grading that espouse similar themes. For another, and far more important reason, he mistook cause for effect.

I absolutely agree that a bad attitude is an extremely common hiring problem, but the bad attitude was caused by a lack of job fit, not the other way around. Bad fit is a multi-headed monster, including a bad fit with the manager, the team, the job itself, the company’s culture, the company’s growth rate, and the underlying business environment. There are probably a few more “lack of …” factors that could have been cited, but these represent the 80/20 rule and the primary cause of a bad attitude.

Consider this: even highly motivated people with a track record of success can develop bad attitudes and become disruptive workers when they don’t work well with their boss, when the job promised is different than the one taken, or the resources needed to do the job right are not provided. In most cases, the person got the bad attitude as a result of these underlying root cause issues. So to solve this problem make sure the person you hire fits the situation from top to bottom. Now that’s radical.

The graphic provides a means to visualize this job fit problem. (Here’s a link to a short video for a more detailed explanation.) The key point: for every hire, you need to ensure alignment top to bottom with the company, the job, the hiring manager, and the person’s ability, motivation, personality, and management needs. Due to rapidly changing business conditions getting this vertical alignment correct is nearly impossible, so you need to select people who also have the ability to move laterally in a variety of different environments. It’s this lack of lateral ability that cause the fit problem and results in a bad attitude. Here’s why:

Company Culture and Rate of Change: This factor is largely dependent on the company’s rate of growth and where it is on the corporate life cycle, somewhere between a resource poor startup to a rule-bound bureaucracy, and both moving toward the center. Obviously few people can thrive in all of these types of environments; that’s why the person has to be assessed on this environmental and cultural measure.

Job Type and Degree of Structure: Jobs have a pace of their own that often collides with the needs of the company’s culture and pace. For example, creative jobs tend to be loose and free flowing, whereas operations and accounting tend to be highly structured. Marketing, sales, and design positions tend to fall somewhere between these extremes. Irrespective of the person in the role, there’s often a natural conflict between the company pace and culture and the job type itself. Adding the wrong person into the fray complicates matters even further. For examples, accountants don’t do too well in startups and independent salespeople fight process and detailed reporting.

Manager Style and Personality: While we’re at it, let’s throw the hiring manager’s style into the job fit mix. The graph shows the manager style extremes from controlling to hands-off and the in-betweens: supervising, training, delegating, and coaching. The best managers have the ability to flex across most of the styles based on the circumstances and the type of people they’re managing. Unfortunately, most managers have a narrower range of ability and get frustrated and prickly when dealing with staff members and issues that conflict with their natural style. Most people would agree that the manager-new hire relationship is the primary cause of employee dissatisfaction. That’s why getting this part of the fit equation right is essential.

Subordinate Style and Personality: Fitting the employee to the job, the manager, and the company is no easy matter, but it’s made worse when generic competency models and behavioral interviewing are used without considering these fit issues. The fit with the hiring manager can be determined by finding out what types of managers the person has worked best with to see if the person can work equally well with all types of managers or if the range is narrower. The best hires are those who can work in all types of environments and with all styles of managers. Few meet this standard, but you should know ahead of time where lack of job fit will become unmanageable. (Watch the video to see a great example of how to address this.)

Since many people, me included, have been writing about this problem for years, including a Fortune cover story in the ’90s on the “bad attitude” problem, “radical” is too strong a term for the importance of assessing it. Essential is a better name for the need to access job and cultural fit before you hire the person. Regardless of what you call it, measuring fit across all job dimensions needs to part of any assessment process. Of course, don’t be surprised when ensuring that you directly assess job satisfaction and employee performance, that most of your bad attitude problems disappear. This is what always happens when you solve root causes rather than their effects. Some might call this concept radical. I call it commonsense.