The Myth of Cultural Fit

The New York Times recently published a terrific opinion piece – Guess Who Doesn’t Fit in at Work – about “cultural fit.”  The writer, Lauren A. Rivera, is also the author of a book entitled “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs” and her valuable insights made me think a lot about the value of working in groups of people who are very different from ourselves. Given our global economy and shifting demographics Americans, in particular, would do well to develop a greater capacity to find ways to build with people who “different.”  I agree with Rivera that the bias towards “cultural fit” might be a fetter to creativity and innovation:

Some may wonder, “Don’t similar people work better together?” Yes and no. For jobs involving complex decisions and creativity, more diverse teams outperform less diverse ones. Too much similarity can lead to teams that are overconfident, ignore vital information and make poor (or even unethical) decisions.

It’s not surprising that the lack of diverse teams made up of people from different economic, racial and gender groupings lead to dysfunction not efficiency. Perhaps this is why confidence in the U.S. Congress is at an all time low!

Rivera is correct that more and more interviews are conducted as “get to know each other” conversations rather than screening for skills and abilities.  “No one asked me a hard question” is a common (and disappointed) response that I hear from candidates when I debrief them about their interviews. The image that comes to mind is a scene from Mad Man, where co-workers hang out an drink together, rather than engaging in the rewarding activity of learning peoples’ differences and then figuring out how to use those differences to build something new together.

Another salient point that Rivera makes reminds me of why I have had a lifelong love affair with the theatre, an ensemble-based creative activity:

When it comes to creating a cohesive work force, managers often discount the power of shared experiences on the job, especially working interdependently on a high-stakes project. The more time we spend with co-workers, the more similar to them we tend to become.

Theatre and performance teach us that we can go beyond ourselves and play and perform with all kinds of people (children do this the best) regardless of whether we have anything “in common.” We get to know each other by working and co-creating together, it really doesn’t matter if we’ve attended the same school or have the same hobbies. The greatness of America lies in our diversity. Getting out of ourselves might just turn out to be more important than fitting in with others!