A few years ago, a Director told me that a manager (let’s call her “Sharon”) had to be dismissed because she was “a bad cultural fit”, so the Director constructed a redundancy to dismiss her. This is, ethically, commercially and as a process, poor for anyone but, to make things inexcusable, the business was a compassionate, socially purposed organisation and the Director was a highly experienced senior HR professional.
So what did she mean by “bad cultural fit”? What does anyone mean by that? A “bad” culture can be typified by commonly uncooperative, deceitful, aggressive, uncommunicative, unaccountable or otherwise poor ethics and behaviours, led by a dominant group of individuals within it. A bad cultural fit is simply where the beliefs, habits, values and common behaviours of an individual are incompatible with those of the group, irrespective of the merits of either.
For Sharon, none of those things applied as she was passionately dedicated to her team and customers, consistent with the values and purpose of most of her team. But there was another power figure of longer-standing employment (let’s call her Rhona) who, for her own reasons, resented Sharon’s leadership and had the ear of the board. Finally, the board responded to Rhona’s pressure and made a move, justifying their actions not through performance, behaviour or anything measurable, manageable or, dare it say it, professional, but through the unexplained sin of “bad cultural fit”. In this case, “bad cultural fit” was nothing more than an excuse for inept management of not one, but two employees.
WHAT IS A “GOOD CULTURAL FIT”?
Every workgroup culture can, and probably should, be different. However, with the view that any workgroup should be one where human capacity, effectiveness and well-being are optimised, there are some things that apply to every workgroup in every industry. The basic platform for enabling the possibility of harmonious and sustainable cultural fit are:
Safety – Workgroup environment, relationships, communications and social practices need to feel safe. Without safety, amygdala-led fear responses will be common, seeing people focusing on simply surviving aggressively or defensively (fight or flight responses). If safety is absent, expect the focus to be on achieving it, or minimising the risk of things becoming worse. Workplace bullying, exclusion, discrimination, harassment, blame, aggression and non-accountability are examples of behaviours that, although they may be a part of a stable (toxic) workgroup culture, must be unacceptable for every commercial and moral reason.
Fulfilment – We are intrinsically motivated to achieve fulfilment via satisfaction of basic needs (in the workplace being connection, empowerment, identity and task reward) and consistency (being complimentary neural pathway activation at rational and intuitive levels arising from acting in accordance with personal beliefs, values and morality). Employees will most easily conform to a workgroup culture if they can achieve fulfilment in ways that fit workgroup goals, values and practices.
And that’s most of it. That’s the basic neurobiological platform for a good workgroup cultural fit. And this is where workplace culture planning and leadership falls down: If the platform of safety and fulfilment isn’t satisfied and enhanced by individuals adapting to the group, they will feel compelled to seek fulfilment and safety in other ways, potentially including changing the culture to suit themselves.
Conversely, if employees feel safer and more fulfilled by acting in ways that are compatible with workgroup practices, goals and values, and the workgroup supports and rewards them accordingly, the important groundwork is done.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE…
Of course, there is much more to workgroup culture than the baseline of safety and fulfilment. For example, is the primary goal social or financial? Does the group work mostly as individuals or as a team? Is effort valued most, or attendance, or relationships, or results? Who’s leading workgroup culture? Is it the team leader, or the loudest, or the grumpy guy who holds the most knowledge, or the politically-adept, or the well-connected, popular or attractive? Along the way, what is rewarded, what is penalised, and how clear are boundaries and goals?
Our Workplace Culture 360 Assessment measures 31 of those variables, and in our Leading With Culture training and coaching program we teach current and aspiring leaders how use them to design, develop and manage their own ideal workgroup culture. It’s brilliant! But it’s not set and forget – culture needs to be experienced and re-experienced as a stable set of explicit and implicit social rules to be meaningful, attractive and “the norm”.
Of course, old habits, fears and views can be deeply embedded, so individual employees may struggle to adapt to different priorities, views and ways of doing things. This is a job for employee selection that recruiters and employers often get wrong by focusing on the job description more than cultural compatibility. After that, cultural leadership is an essential part of being an effective leader that, when well-matched to the shared goals and values of the workgroup, makes every other aspect of leadership so much easier.
Every workgroup has a culture, whether by intent or accident – it is impossible not to. Through lived experience rather than words, by design or by evolution, by intent or default, or by leadership or lack of leadership, the culture of a workgroup is a truth that reflects the intentions, values and competence of its leader. When judging whether an employee is a “good” or “bad” cultural fit, it’s worth remembering that.
Note: This article is not intended to “blame” leaders for situations they have inherited, things they haven’t been taught or initiatives they haven’t yet been able to implement. Rather, Sharon’s story describes poor leadership from someone who, considering her senior industry role, should know better. In that account, if anyone was a bad cultural fit, it was Rhona – but she was rewarded by the board for her behaviour, reinforcing it as an example to others of who to fear and/or how to get ahead. And at another level, let’s not simply blame Rhona for playing a game that was enabled and supported by the highest levels of leadership, who themselves seem to have been a poor cultural fit for the espoused purpose and values of the business.
It’s also helpful to acknowledge that there are some workplaces and workgroups that have strong, often historical or broad cultural influences outside of the control of the workgroup leader. However, with safety and fulfilment as a platform, supported by intentional, skilled workgroup leadership and management practice, every culture can be influenced to evolve into one that is far better for the performance, health and well-being of employees and employers.