Do You Look for Cultural Fit, or for Innovation?

The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress. — Charles Kettering

There has been a lot written lately about “cultural fit.” In fact, you could say that cultural fit is the latest rage in talent acquisition.

In an article in the American Sociological Review, Northwestern Professor Lauren Rivera concludes that companies are making hiring decisions today “in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners.”

The 4 Most-asked Interview Questions

Glassdoor collected 285,000 questions asked by hiring managers. In 2012, the following were the top four asked. Note that they have nothing to do with skills, accomplishments, or experience.

  1. What’s your favorite movie?
  2. What’s your favorite website?
  3. What’s the last book you read for fun?
  4. What makes you uncomfortable?

Cultural fit is important, but it has its limits.

Here is a case where cultural fit is carried to the extreme. A manager says the best way to get cultural fit is:

Hire lots of relatively inexperienced people. You can indoctrinate people who grow up in your culture more easily than people who grew up in someone else’s company culture. Inexperienced people make up for inexperience with enthusiasm, and often don’t have much of a life.”

Sounds like brainwashing to me!

Most Important Factors for Success

Lets look at a very important attribute that is being overlooked. It is one that CEOs are very focused on right now — innovation.

In a Global CEO Survey conducted by IBM, CEOs identified “creativity” or “innovation” as the most important factor for the successful company of the future.

Although CEOs believe innovation is important, many struggle to implement it because they’re afraid. And the more successful the company, the greater the fear.

The tendency is to hold on to the past — to believe that what made a company successful up to this point will continue to make it successful in the future. Psychologists tell us this is human nature: People fear the unknown.

Sticking with the status quo may have been fine when the world moved at a much slower pace. But in today’s hyper-paced business environment, it is no longer a good excuse. To change quickly in today’s business world, you need to hire innovators — and innovators, by definition, question the status quo.

In her book The Innovation Killer, Cynthia Barton Rabe says that companies and employees rely on “what we know” and “the way we do things here.”

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What Keeps Companies From Innovating

But progress demands change. How is it accomplished? Who will take responsibility for an unorthodox decision? Who will be willing to stand up and say that the emperor has no clothes?

Rabe says there are two basic barriers that keep companies from innovating:

  1. “GroupThink” is following the herd — being a “yes man.” When employees are sitting in a room with 10 people they have to work with every day, it becomes very difficult not to go along with the group.
  2. “ExpertThink” is GroupThink on steroids. It’s the tendency to make decisions based on the opinions of experts. People don’t question experts. They have a healthy respect for them and believe them 100 percent.

Innovators question authority and assumptions. They do things differently. They think differently. They are able to connect ideas in strange and unexpected ways that are unexpected and very valuable to the company. Voicing a different opinion is not a sign that innovators are not “team players.”

Finding Innovation Takes More Work

The downside is that working with innovators slows things down when questions are asked that generate a lot of discussion. Research shows that a team of people that are diverse in some way take longer to arrive at a conclusion than a team that is “homogenous.” But the end result is much better because of all the different ideas and ways of seeing things that are discussed.

Identifying and attracting innovators takes extra work. But the reward when you do find them is that they will end up being some of your most valuable employees.

So go ahead and keep asking job candidates all those silly questions — What’s your favorite movie? What’s your favorite book? If you could be an animal which one would you be?

But listen to the answers a little more closely. And when you hear an answer you’ve never heard before, pay close attention. You just may have found yourself an innovator!

Jacque Vilet, president of Vilet International, has more than 20 years’ experience in international human resources with major multinationals such as Intel, National Semiconductor, and Seagate Technology. She has managed both local/ in-country national and expatriate programs and has been an expat twice during her career. She has also been a speaker in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, and is a regular contributor to various HR and talent management publications. Contact her at


16 Comments on “Do You Look for Cultural Fit, or for Innovation?

  1. Companies may say they want innovation, but what people or groups communicate as their desire and what they actually support are often two different things. I’ve mentioned before, companies are made up of people working at all levels, and how much innovation do CEOs truly want in the mail room? At any given point in time the majority of positions open at a company are not their top level, high impact positions, but are the nuts and bolts people who are doing hands on work. Whether or not innovation is wanted or supported at those levels is hit or miss. How much innovation do you find in the mail room, and how much is really wanted?

    Nor do I think cultural fit and innovation are at odds. Cultural fit is whether or not there’s an alignment between how a company approaches things and how the candidate does so as well. It’s not a blind adherence to existing process, but whether or not the candidate understands and can work well with the personalities that make up the company and what they expect in terms of work product. Sometimes this can mean process, often times it just means can you meet a person’s expectations in a way that satisfies them, such as them preferring in person updates as opposed to emails.

    But, what if the innovation in question is discarding in person communication for electronic because it would help increase productivity, and there’s a person in a position of power who insists that anything not told directly to him in person doesn’t count and has not been communicated? This is not far fetched, I’ve seen this several times in my life so far.

    In the end, innovators do question authority, and the fact is many authorities do not want to be questioned and do not take it well when it happens, even among those who claim they want innovation, and even if the questioner turns out to be right. Supporting innovation means you have to be willing to accept that fact that you may be wrong and that there’s a better way of doing things, and this is not a quality seen very often in people at any level, including CEOs. Human nature is often a fight between the status quo and innovation, and while people may praise innovation they’re not so quick to do so when innovation means slaying their own personal sacred cow, or when they’re not willing to adopt new methods for no particular reason. This is a behavior that exist at all levels in all companies.

    So be wary of CEOs who say they want innovation, because it’s their actions that truly determine if that’s what they want, and their actions rarely agree with their words. More often than not they want the profit and return from innovation, but not the messy ‘changing the way they do things’ part of it that’s a required step to get that result.

  2. Thanks for your comment Robert. I agree wholeheartedly. Management is scared of innovation even though know they need it. It’s a psychological thing. If companies have been doing well and being profitable in the past, why rock the boat? No ones like change because it is an unknown. No one likes to feel uncomfortable — like they are groping the dark.

    Some CEOs have embraced innovation though. Without it there would be no breakthrough products, etc.

    But speed is of the essence. U.S. multinationals are facing companies in emerging markets that are new and have no “baggage” from the past. The fact that they are new means that their very existence depends on innovation in order to compete with the “big boys”. And the “big boys” have a lot of baggage!

  3. @ Richard. Well said.
    Let’s get to the real meanings of “cultural fit” and “innovation”:
    1) Cultural fit- “Hiring people like me and/or I like.”
    2) Innovation- “Having the producers produce more/better stuff and the sales reps make us more money selling it. Everything else is a threat to the ‘status quo’, i.e., to me.”
    If I may: when someone in business starts using the word “innovation”: watch your wallet and hold your nose….

    Happy Friday, ‘Cruitaz!


  4. A very interesting article ……I recall that in 1998 I was assigned to Moscow Russia on a multi billion dollars construction project as HR Director…..One of my first tasks was to put in place a large HR/Admin team consisting of Russian National….six months into the project operations we had a team building social evening……During the course of socializing with my HR team they all indicated they were all surprised by the manner of their final interview with me……in particular they made reference to the first question I asked all of them ……which was …..”Do you like music?”……Of course qualification and experience of important when considering a new hire……but at the end of the day the candidate has to fit into the team therefore their personality is a huge factor…….

  5. @ Jacque On a GOOD day, I’m cynical….
    Anyway, this way I’m quite often right, and the rest time I’m pleasantly surprised.



  6. @Jacque – great post!

    I agree with your point that cultural fit is important but has limits. For me cultural fit is not about the persons favorite book, movie or tenure of talent. In my opinion its a person that has values that mirror the organization.

    If the corporate culture is collaborative, then I want to know how collaborative the candidate is. If they can demonstrate examples of when they successfully collaborated with co-workers to complete a project – then I consider them to be a cultural fit. Same can be said for other things like “customer centric”, “innovative”, “change tolerant” …

    Thanks for sharing this hot topic in recruiting!

  7. @ Crystal: ISTM those who are looking at cultural fit are assuming that the existing cultural is both optimal and static. These are both dangerous assumptions to make.


  8. Great article. I have found the above comments very interesting as well. Personally, my experience as both an employee and management is that an innovative culture is not easy to implement. It’s fine line between inviting different ideas which will lead to active communication and having many discussions with little progress. A you stated in your article, Jacquie, the end result is often better, but some companies don’t have the resources or qualified management to implement and direct that type of approach. I am certainly not saying this means innovation should be squashed. However, I do feel that there needs to be some serious restructuring or education at the management level to make this happen and happen well.
    Ken Schmitt

  9. Hi Ken —- thanks for the comment. Yes management really needs to receive training on how to manage “innovative” people. Some managers may think that innovators that ask a lot of questions are being skeptical — being negative. Sometimes they are — and sometimes they are not and managers need to understand the difference. Also managers don’t need to push for speedy decisions when great ideas are surfacing in the group. And they need to recognize when a group is discovering great things by taking their time— and when things are just getting bogged down.

    You are absolutely —- takes a LOT of education first!

  10. @Crystal – Very well said!

    After reading this I have to wonder…

    Are hiring managers making their decisions based on taste in music/books/movies because they are genuinely confused about the concept of Organizational Culture/Fit? Or are they just using it as an excuse to justify hiring whoever they ‘like’ the most?

    Also, why did hiring based on Cultural Fit only recently become “the latest rage in talent acquisition”? Like most trendy HR topics, this is NOT a new concept, in fact I thought pretty much everyone was already including this as an integral part of the recruitment/selection process.

    The only part that seems new is its apparent widespread abuse, which could have many consequences. One of the easiest to imagine would be a reduction in diversity. Wasn’t diversity ‘the rage in talent acquisition’ not too long ago? Maybe it doesn’t count since we hadn’t started calling it ‘talent acquisition’ yet : )

  11. @Micheal: Ha – you are so right! It’s funny to me how these buzz words come and go. It can be abused and sadly it often is.

    @Keith: Yes, in a less than optimal organization it is dangerous. I think the HR professional/hiring manager who is asked to screen for culture fit should have a firm grasp on what the culture is really like and how to make the match with integrity, transparency and overall retention. Nothing is worse for the new employee than starting a job that was misrepresented.

    What I find disconcerting is this whole defining culture process. I get asked the question all the time, “what’s your culture like”? If you have not been with the company long, you are just regurgitating what your told to say – now THAT is dangerous! Often true in HR departments with a revolving door of recruiters.

  12. All of you — great comments! Cultural “fit” is great — but I was playing devil’s advocate here. Don’t let your company become so “think alike” that it loses out on some innovative ideas because someone might just be willing to put some new things “out there”. Company should not be uneasy/afraid to hire people with new ideas — it’s not “sameness” that keep companies moving forward —- it’s innovation.

    Innovation is not a dirty word!

  13. @ Crystal: “I get asked the question all the time, ‘what’s your culture like’?” When I go for interviews, I try to get a good lookk and feel of what the people are like- do they seem happy, excited, anxious, sad, peaceful, etc.? An answer to that question might be: “lets take a walk and you can see for yourself….”



  14. Very interesting article, and I do agree that cuitural fit is sometimes used in less than optimal ways. On the flip side, though, it depends how you define cultural fit. The anti-adversity argument is an understandable objection, but only when cultural fit is used – or misused – in a particular way. It doesn’t have be about hiring yes-men and women. Whether innovation is best achieved by conflict or unity is an age-old question, and the answer is that it’s probably some of both – mostly unity, with a few dissenters in the mix to shake things up. The key point is, the concept of cultural fit can be used not only to hire those with values congruent with the company’s but also to fill gaps that might be missing in the culture, and to deliberately select innovators who will lead to growth and change without unnecessary conflict.

    When used properly, hiring using cultural fit can be about balance; understanding a company’s culture and how each individual fits (or doesn’t) is key to making an informed choice about whether to hire to congruence diversity, or both. Like most things, cultural fit is a neutral concept – it’s how people use it that matters!

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