The Long and Short Of Culture Matching

Oct 8, 2009

Picture 3As anyone who has worked in more than one organization knows, in addition to job skills, successful long-term employees tend to act and think similarly. You can think of it as “culture.” Personal success depends on both personal and environmental factors, each of which is important in its own way. Personal factors include having the right skill-set to perform the job and the motivations to use them. Environmental factors include things like getting along with the manager and fitting into the culture of the organization.

Let’s begin with the assertion that having the right job skills is at the top of the food chain.

There is nothing more dangerous to the bottom line than employees not being able to perform a job. In fact, without the mental horsepower, organization skills, and interpersonal skills to perform a specific job, an employee is a potential train-wreck (although a happy one, if that counts for anything) … and, yes, managers are considered employees.

The Manager

Research shows the greatest source of job satisfaction or dissatisfaction is a person’s manager. I’d like to pretend I had no troubles with managers, but in my own career, I have gone overnight from being a valued employee to receiving a one-way train-ticket out of Dodge: same person, same skills, same organization, but different manager. I have also moved in the opposite direction. The minute my manager changed, my train ticket was canceled and I was welcomed back into the club. Again: same person, same skills, same organization, but different manager.

I have also worked in and with different corporate cultures characterized by innovation and continuous improvement; where loyalty was valued more than ability; that resembled an institution for the emotionally dysfunctional; where time stood still; and, where feelings of support people were valued more than the product of the professionals. Yes, manager fit and cultural fit are alive and well affecting human performance everywhere.

One Man’s Paradise is Another’s Hell

Ben Schneider, chair of the I/O program at the University of Maryland, has written extensively about what happens when personal culture clashes with organizational culture. He calls it ASA — an acronym for attraction, selection, and attrition.

It sounds more complicated than it is. Applicants are attracted (A) to organizations based on their cultural reputation; organizations select (S) employees who seem to “fit” their culture; and, employees who don’t fit leave through either voluntary or involuntary attrition (A). ASA forces are like a corporate iceberg. It has enormous inertia to resist any change.

There are a variety of recognizable cultures. For example, innovative vs. traditional; interdependent team vs. individual; cooperative vs. competitive; arrogant vs. self-effacing; autonomous vs. controlling; and, trusting vs. defensive, just to name a few. Of course, these cultures also come in all combinations and permutations.

Making ASA Work for You

As I mentioned earlier, culture is a powerful force that is slow to change. Sometimes a change in executive management will have an effect; otherwise, changing culture is often like putting a frog in a pan: too hot for comfort and the frog immediately jumps out; but, slowly raise the temperature, and the frog adapts. (No actual frogs were harmed in this example.)

So, how do we match employees to a culture?

First, we have to recognize the three major forces at work in organizational culture: 1) direct manager, 2) job-related, and, 3) organizational. Because ASA works in occupations as well as organizations, we can generally assume job-specific managers and current job-specific employees already fit the culture or they would have left through attrition (of course there are always a few exceptions). This means the first step is making sure applicant first fits the motivational (aka cultural) requirements of his or her job.

After we know the motivational expectations of the job, we have to “overlay” the culture of the organization. For the most part, this means identifying factors that touch all positions. Most commonly, these include a preference for innovation, working in teams, being competitive, and not being narcissistic. You might think of the first three factors as being bright-side (observable, positive) and the last as dark-side (hidden, dysfunctional).

What do I mean when I say dark side? Bob Hogan, a preeminent researcher in the personality/motivation field (and also a subject-matter expert on my long-ago dissertation committee), has shown that bright side factors lead to upward career mobility, but dark side factors tend to emerge when employees gain position-power in the organization. Dark-side narcissists are usually extremely charismatic; however, inside they harbor deep-seated feelings of superiority and entitlement. One only needs to think of the many public and political figures making the news by shamelessly taking advantage of other people to further their own egotistical objectives.

The Process

Starting with a known performance framework, a professional test developer interviews people from the organization using that information to build a survey that includes both occupationally specific and organizational-specific factors. The developer gives the survey to a few hundred people. Their answers allow the developer to determine things like inter-item reliability and construct validity (this data enables the developer to make deletions and edits to ensure a robust test). If all things go as planned, the next step includes either a concurrent or predictive validity study.

Validity studies confirm the test actually measures what it was designed to measure. They involve one group of people taking the survey and another group of people rating them. A concurrent study uses employees already on the job. It is quicker, but since employees are generally alike (i.e., survived the ASA thingy), it is harder to find differences between them. A predictive study gives better results because new employees are more diverse than seasoned ones; but, it takes more time.


The fit between organization, manager, and employee is more complicated than most people imagine. Broad-scope, one-size-fits-all surveys tend to ignore critical job-fit factors. Good fit involves understanding the momentum and inertia of attraction, selection, and attrition and separating them into factors that affect both the employee and the organization. Done right, this kind of survey ensures getting the right people into jobs they will enjoy. Caution should be taken, however, to remember that culture usually tells us very little about job skills. Maximum performance requires measuring both.

Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!