If there are two terms that the corporate world uses, and even over-uses, they are “diversity” and “culture-fit”. There is no argument against either of these aspects in isolation, yet when taken together, it could seem like there is a contradiction. If diversity is important, does a company’s culture not count for anything, and vice-versa? Can company insist on a candidate being a “culture-fit” when it should embrace people who bring in diverse cultural perspectives?
To answer this, and find the balance, it is essential to ask “what is culture?” as well and decide what one’s company culture is. If one answers these thoughtfully, this contradiction diminishes significantly, though not entirely. Wrong notions of culture causes confusion.
WHAT IS COMPANY CULTURE?
Edgar Schein, former MIT Sloan professor and the demigod of organisation culture, says culture manifests itself at three levels—artefacts, espoused values, and “the tacit stuff”. Artefacts are things like office décor, dress code, celebratory styles, late night meetings and get-togethers. Espoused values are what companies swear by— customer centricity, agility, collaboration, transparency.
Neither artefacts nor espoused values represent the true culture of a company, though the espoused values indicate a combination of intent and desire.
It is not uncommon to see companies espouse something, but in reality, not be deeply committed to it. Irrespective of what leaders in a company might say what truly represents company culture are the behaviours displayed by them every day, or behaviours that are rewarded and recognised.
Culture-fit is often misunderstood because hiring managers look for a fit at the artefact level, which is superficial. Looking for a culture-fit at an artefact level is an unambiguous sign of a “not like us” bias. So how does one balance culture-fit and diversity?
In my opinion, there are three types of companies: a) Companies that have a limited understanding of their own culture, and hence an inadequate understanding of what really constitutes a culture-fit. Such companies are like individuals with little or no self-awareness; b) Companies that have a good sense of their culture, but are understated about it and don’t deify it, because they realise that one needs room for tolerance, assimilation and inclusion; c) Companies that publicise and glorify their culture to the extent it sounds like a cult.
It is the third category of companies that have made culture seem like such a cool thing. The aggressive pursuit of “culture-fit” by these companies can sometimes become the equivalent of intolerance.
To an extent, these companies resemble cults, and cults have a tendency to augment and reinforce their identity in an authoritarian manner.
Startups are more prone to this. In the absence of a strong brand or reputation, they derive a sense of identity and bonding through culture. This clearly goes against the grain of inclusion, which in the medium- to long-term hurts the startup’s ability to attract talent.
Companies that have truly cracked the culture code are those in the second category. They get what culture is, and know how to make work for them.
One of the biggest lessons in my career in managing cross-border, cross-cultural, and globally distributed multi-ethnic teams has been about the importance of ignoring, or maybe even celebrating, the artefact-level differences.
In fact, genuine respect and appreciation for the artefact-level differences creates stronger bonding and agreement around the more foundational elements of culture. In a cross-cultural context, by paying too much attention to the artefacts or style, your judgment would be coloured by what in your culture is considered a superior style.
Therefore, stereotyping and jumping to conclusions about individuals, or even believing your style is superior, is falling prey to the “not like us” bias.
The phrases “melting pot” and “salad bowl” have been used in a cultural context. However, culture-fit is never about a melting pot or a salad bowl. It is a bit of both. The identity at the artefact level is analogous to a salad bowl. Different artefacts can co-exist in peace and with mutual respect.
The identity at the level of the basic beliefs and values is more analogous to a melting pot where everyone could strive to be similar. This, in essence, is the crux of diversity and culture-fit.
T.N. Hari is the co-founder of Artha School of Entrepreneurship, an advisor at Fundamentum Partnership, and an author, whose latest book is Diversity Beyond Tokenism: Why Being Politically Correct Doesn’t Help Anyone.