Is Flexibility More Important than Fit?

It’s long been a business truism that cultural fit is highly important. Skills, after all, can be taught. But cultural fit on factors as variable as whether an employee likes baseball or soccer, or what kind of music they listen to in drive time, or how they approach team collaboration, predict whether they will mesh with co-workers, and with an entire organization. Cultural fit predicts how well new hires do on the job. In terms of business strategy, it helps companies achieve good retention rates and levels of engagement.

While cultural fit is a key indicator of new employee success…

Does Flexibility Predict Success More?

Recently, though, professors from Stanford Business School have singled out flexibility as a more important predictor of success in an organization than fit. They found that a new hire’s skill at recognizing elements of the corporate culture and adapting to them actually predicted success better than initial fit.

The study is interesting on several levels. It places more of an emphasis on being able to read a culture than on already fitting into it. It also raises the possibility that identification of capabilities to read the unwritten rules of an organization and adapt to them may be highly valuable to an organization.

Business leadership might urge human resources departments to add these capabilities to their screening matrices, along with fit. How could they be identified? Personnel departments should perhaps look at whether prospective employees have worked in varied places in terms of culture, or countries whose cultures differ from each other.

...flexibility and adaptability might be even more significant.

Boosting Engagement

There are also implications for employee engagement and retention in the study. Some of the employees in the study ultimately failed (were let go from the firms) because they, indeed, didn’t fit. But there was a second group of the flexible who did learn to fit in, but then left of their own volition due to lack of engagement. (This latter group is separate from the flexible who adapted with full success.)

Why did a certain group become disengaged? They may have disengaged from the culture. The authors suggest that onboarding processes often boost cultural signals, as human resources people give specific information on how an organization does things and approaches issues. Employees in the initial stages may also be more attuned to the frequency of cultural signals as well. In addition, measures to boost engagement aren’t provided often.

It’s possible that more frequent cultural lessons and more extensive engagement exercises can give employees the tools to see how well they’re adapting to the organization – which would provide them with an understanding of how much they need to adapt.

Companies spend a great deal of time and money trying to choose employees who will stay and thrive in the organization, partly because voluntary departures lessen productivity and increase costs. Those efforts are still critical, of course. But focusing on ways to continually emphasize cultural signals and to let employees monitor their own adaptation might be another helpful tool in the kit.

Is adaptability more important than fit? It’s certainly worth adding to the list of qualities to look for in new hires.

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