When we talk about cultural fit in the workplace, we often use the terms right or wrong fit, but what do we actually mean by ‘best fit’? Is it definable, and is cultural fit masking bias or prejudice? Is it possible to achieve a diverse culture and still have a ‘type’ and if so, what impact does that have on organisational culture?

In Search Of Commonality

Human beings automatically look for similarities when meeting each other. This is a natural instinct stemming from the primitive but powerful drive of self-preservation: those who appear similar to us are less likely to hurt us or eat us and are therefore safe(r). This idea has continued into modern society. Just think of the chit chat at any social gathering, the slight lift you get when you realise that you have something in common with the stranger you are talking to (and this really could be anything – where your granny lives, what colour your hallway is etc.) You like them more because you are a little bit alike. In fact you probably started talking to them in the first place because they were in some way familiar looking or appealing to you. The point is that we are genetically predisposed to liking similarities in others and being drawn to them. And these similarities do not have to be physical, but could be an unseen common value such as politics or religion or even something as simple as the shared love of a good book.

In people management terms, this concept is called ‘mirroring’ and refers to the common pitfall of subconsciously (or even consciously) gravitating towards people who are like ourselves. Whether it be sharing the same sense of humour, exhibiting traits that we would like ourselves, being from the same side of town, being the same gender or race, even physical appearance, these things help to forge a social connection which can be very powerful. In terms of making people decisions, it takes a conscious mind shift to re-programme yourself to seek out those who are different from you and widen the net to fish in different waters.

The Limitations of Homogeny

Of course there is nothing wrong with surrounding yourself with people with whom you have things in common. It certainly makes for good office banter if everyone is on the same wavelength. The problem is the end result of such a people philosophy: homogeny, a group of people with similar backgrounds, similar outlooks, comparable professional experience, essentially, an office of clones who are demographically and culturally bland. In such an environment, there is limited perspective, fewer new ideas and little spark for change. When everyone thinks the same way, they do things the same way and it causes stagnation. This problem is self-perpetuating as the business will continue to recruit more of the same preferred ‘fit’ of person, the demographics will remain stilted, the culture stale and the pool of ideas and experience narrow. This can have far reaching consequences for business performance: the company may experience problems reaching out to a wide client base, which leads to growth problems; it may become pigeon-holed as the type of business that only represents a certain demographic, thus limiting its scope; it may face recruitment problems if it exhausts the pool of suitable candidates, or gains a poor reputation in the marketplace. Essentially, operating with a pool of very similar people limits a business to mediocrity and prevents it from achieving excellence.

What Does ‘Best Fit’ Really Mean?

So often, you hear “they just weren’t the right fit” when referring to an unsuccessful job applicant or someone being managed out of a business. But what does it actually mean? Well, ‘fit’ defines the extent to which an individual marries up with the company values and principles and how far they appear to share the same belief system and slot into the company culture. As an example, a meat eating BBQ enthusiast joining a vegan food company may struggle to buy into the vision statement. Someone who shares the company ethos on a personal level is much more likely to embody the company values, to live and breathe the core purpose and go the extra mile to deliver results. ‘Fit’ is certainly an important piece of the employment puzzle and one which will help both the individual and the organisation to achieve greater success.

The darker side of ‘fit’ is when it is used as a smokescreen or as an excuse. Often when a company rejects someone because they are ‘not the right fit’ it really means that either a) we didn’t really like them, or b) they are not like us, i.e. they are different. This is often attributed to ‘gut feeling’. We hear of shrewd business people having good gut instinct and it’s true that some people grasp situations quickly and have a good steer on how to react on a fairly immediate basis. But gut feeling is personal and intangible. It can’t be read by others, or even explained – ‘going with your gut’ is adequate explanation in itself. As such it can become a vehicle for unconscious bias, an excuse for prejudice and a means of backing up a decision that is neither credible nor ethical. Employers therefore need to be cautious if ‘gut feeling’ is brought into the equation on a people basis. Is it really gut instinct, or is it subconscious bias talking? Is it really the cultural fit that is not right or is it the personal prejudice of the decision-maker?

Achieving Best Fit Without Compromising Diversity & Inclusion

Diversity means celebrating differences, proactively seeking variety, an assortment of backgrounds and profiles to build a strong company unit. Inclusion means embracing differences and involving a wide circle of people in decisions and progress. So is it possible to dovetail ‘best fit’ alongside the principles and practices of a diverse and inclusive culture?

The simple answer is yes, but it boils down to the same argument as always.  If your approach to diversity only consists of a policy, a few strategically positioned posters, and trotting out the occasional compliance training, then it’s by no means inclusive in practice.  And by definition, therefore, your concept of ‘best fit’ becomes more akin to cloning.  But if diversity and inclusion sit firmly at the core of your company culture then your practices will naturally mirror your policies.  You won’t just talk about the value of diversity; you will experience it.  And you will come to discover that ‘best fit’ is about shared values, shared goals and shared commitment, in spite of a diverse array of backgrounds, skills, ideas, or beliefs. And because of all that diversity, your business will benefit from a constant injection of new ideas and approaches to further the company purpose. With a broader view and wider circle of opinion, a company gives itself a better chance of broadening its appeal, but also becomes more agile to navigate change and adapt to market conditions, drawing on the varied backgrounds of those within it. They will maintain the competitive edge not only through a sense of goal alignment (‘we all know and believe in what we are working towards’), but also through their diversity (‘we find strength in our differences’).

How Does Diversity Impact Culture?

As we already know, human beings are drawn to similarities with each other, so how does it impact workplace culture when the team has a truly diverse make-up? How do you bring together a diverse workforce?

Recognising and respecting differences is key to creating a positive environment. It’s not until you recognise a difference that you can use it to your advantage. This is not about naval gazing but rather appreciating your own strength areas and what others bring to the party.

Let’s not forget that however different employees may seem, they all have one thing in common: the company they work for. If that company provides strong leadership, clear direction and purpose and above all vision, a diverse team will draw strength from their differences, working together not because they are the same but because they share a goal, they believe in something. And they have a much better arsenal at their disposal in terms of skills, experience, understanding and knowledge than a team of clones.

How We Can Help

Here at great{with}diversity, we know that there is a direct correlation between diversity and organisational performance levels. Organisations who are falling behind in diversity terms are also falling behind in profits. More specifically, we delve way beyond the diversity ‘statistics’, and zone in on the important part – engagement levels.  After all, your workforce can be as diverse as you can make it, but if its not fully inclusive, it won’t get you very far.

We also know it’s not easy to balance maintaining a fit with company culture and achieving diversity & inclusion and that it’s often hard to know where to start. Our expertise has achieved proven success in putting forward the ethical and commercial case for diversity and inclusion, helping companies to embrace change, act with purpose and see tangible results for themselves. We produce detailed and impactful analysis of the pattern of diversity, inclusion and engagement within your business, so that you can focus your effort and resources on addressing the areas that make the greatest impact. Whether you are looking to audit your practices in relation to racial inclusivity, gender equality or any other field of diversity, you will only need to come to one provider to assess diversity and inclusion in all its forms, right through your business.

If you want to hear more, you can visit our website www.greatwithdiversity.com or get in touch, we would love to hear from you.