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Companies are dispensing with the term “culture fit” but how can candidates shift to a culture add mindset? Learn strategies and questions you can ask to help understand how you will add to the culture and not just fit in.

Shifting from Culture Fit to Culture Add: As the Candidate

Recently, I had an interview for a mid-level manager role in a local college student life office. Right before I had my Zoom conversation, I read up on the team and their programming. I evaluated their mission and vision statements. And I came up with some questions about the position based on the job description.

What I didn’t do was do what I usually do: look up and read through the biographies of the people working in the office.

Instead, I tried to become more familiar with their organization and what I could add to it rather than imagine how I could fit into the existing organization. I stopped trying to be likable and instead focused on being employable!

This mind-shift helped shift the focus on usually prepare for interviews, from trying to be someone people would relate to rather than someone with skills that could move the organization towards achieving its mission.

While many have written about culture fit versus culture add from the hiring company point of view, I wanted to apply this concept to my own job searching. I will share what I learned below, with some strategies on how to ascertain a company culture while showcasing your own personal strengths, skills, and personal identities that will add to the company.

What is Culture Fit

In order to understand culture fit, I had to learn how to define it. Lauren Shufran, in Gem.com, showed three definitions that helped clarify the concept that culture fit is:

  • “Defined as the individual’s attitudes, values and beliefs being in line with the core values and culture of an organization” (CompanyMatch).
  • “The likelihood that someone will reflect and/or be able to adapt to the core beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that make up your organization”  (Harvard Business Review).
  • “The concept of screening potential candidates to determine what type of cultural impact they would have on the organization. This is based on the alignment of values, beliefs, and behaviors between the employee and employer” (Culture Amp).

Typically, the concept focuses on how a candidate will adapt and assimilate into a preexisting culture.

But as someone who worked in diversity education for a over a decade, I know that our values, beliefs and behaviors are informed by our identities and the communities that shaped our understanding of them.

However, Fiona Young, from HIVE Learning, warns us we should beware of cultural fit thinking. “The idea behind culture fit is that you want to hire people like you to build a harmonious team – usually people with a similar background and personality.

“This is at odds with building a truly diverse team, diverse not just in inherent demographics but also in subtler dimensions like personality, ways of thinking, and communication styles. That’s not great if you want to reap the benefits of diversity.”

Personally Shifting to Culture Add

Moving my personal approach to job searching from culture fit to culture add was a big step for me. Especially after three years of job-searching in my field. This may not seem radical, but after 20 years of sitting in both the interviewer and candidate seats, I had become comfortable approaching interviews in a certain way. I now recognize the cost of that decision.

In many interviews in the past few years, I approached the interviews trying to look for similarities in background and shared experiences. I diminished my own experiences in order to look like an ideal candidate. And then would be surprised when a job offer failed to arrive.

This time around, I tried to showcase where I had unique skills. I talked up my background and how my prior experiences have shaped how I make decisions. And I talked about how I treat staff as individuals with different life paths, who may or may not staff in our field but still deserve attention to their goals. Certainly, this would happen in the past. But this time, my focus remained on how I could add to the organization for each answer, not how I could replicate what was already going on there.

As a twenty-year veteran in my field, I don’t need to diminish my skills to catch anyone’s attention. I also don’t need to try to fit in with people I haven’t worked with yet, but instead just show what I feel confident doing. And above all, I needed to show how flexible I can be in ambiguous situations, which is the biggest strength I add to any organization.

Ways to Ask about Culture Fit as the Candidate

Andra Mircioiu, in Hiring for Culture Add: Interview Questions to Ask from RISE, lists a number of questions that companies can ask a candidate. I believe that a candidate can and should ask some of these questions, too! Below are some of the questions adapted for the candidate to ask:

  • How do you measure success at work? How does a successful day at work look for you? 
  • Describe an occasion at work when the team had to do something you all didn’t agree with. How did you all handle it?
  • Describe a time when you received feedback from a supervisor or someone on another team. How did you all react? What was the end result? 
  • How are your career goals supported within the organization?
  • How is your balance of work and outside-of-work responsibilities supported?

As a candidate, before and after the interview, consider asking yourself these questions:

  • What gaps in our knowledge can I fill? 
  • Do I have knowledge of any new processes or techniques that the organization would benefit from having? 
  • Could I challenge their way of thinking and suggest improvements to their current processes?
  • Do I represent a voice or viewpoint for their customers/clients that they’re missing? Or would I help better communicate with prospective customers/clients by having my voice or viewpoint? 

Being Comfortable Standing Out

I know that my discomfort with this shift stems from standing out among co-workers in previous offices. As I’ve learned how to frame what I know, I approached personal change by diminishing what I knew. I tried my best not to stand out. And I desperately wanted to fit in with the status quo. The reality, I’ve realized, didn’t always match my expectations.

The more I tried to fit in, the more I wanted to leave to fully flex my skills elsewhere. Add in the stress of finding a job in the current economy, and you add in the intense desire to be employable at whatever personal cost there may be. Looking back at the last two years, I have tried very hard not to stand out in ways that could lead to my previous office experiences.

I know, now, that I can and should focus on what I add to any organization with pride. What I add to any organization, now, is grounded in my decades of experience. And that is something I am incredibly proud of. Moving forward, I plan to focus on my problem-solving skills. I’ll focus on how quickly I learn new skills. And I need to think about how I represent voices missing from their current office.

Culture Fit versus Culture Add: From the Interviewer

In the next blog, I will explore how interviewers can add questions that focus on culture add versus culture fit questions. If you have experience about questions, feel free to share with me in the comments below!

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Joseph Rios, EdD
I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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