Cultural Fits and Starts

© 2005 Johanna Rothman.

Defining the people who fit your projects

You've probably heard the adage, “Hire for attitude, train for skills.” There's a good reason to do so. Hiring for attitude means that you won't have to fire people who don't fit into your culture.

But that still isn't easy. Finding people who can fit into the culture of your organization, whether that culture is specific to a project or pervades the entire organization, is not a trivial matter. The first step is to understand your culture so you can determine whether a candidate will fit into that culture.

Assess your culture

Cultural fit is defined by what's valued by an organization and how those values play out within everyone's activities and deliverables. Each project has a culture that may — or may not — be the same as the organization's culture. People who are successful in project teams and organizations have attitudes that complement the culture. Not all people on each team have the same attitude, but long-time successful employees understand and accept the team's values. Consider:

In a software development project, the project manager may believe in team building — the kind that involves rope courses and laser tag. A few months after each of these team-building sessions, however, some people leave. But the people who remain have organized softball and golf leagues. They enjoy working and playing with each other, a core value of the team.

In another high-tech organization, the project manager may encourage dialogue. To the outsider, such dialogue may appear as criticism because it's loud and because people aren't careful about how they explain their positions. But to each person on the team, the ability to discuss a variety of points of view and come to a conclusion as a group is perceived as vital to the group's ability to succeed.

Define your culture

When you assess your culture, be honest about what you value. A team can tolerate a variety of personal styles — in fact, some teams value style diversity — but everyone on the team must share the core values. Some core values that affect culture may be the amount of risk the team is willing to acknowledge or accept; entrepreneurial spirit; making decisions by consensus; and how people give and receive feedback. Sometimes, people express cultural fit as company size because size may mean flexibility in job assignment, funding for projects that may fail, or the ability to contribute directly to revenue.

Interviewing for cultural fit

Now that you've considered what your culture is and how it affects the work, you can develop interview questions and auditions to see how well a candidate may fit into your culture.

First, you must consider the environment. I helped hire a director of software engineering at an organization in which everyone made decisions by consensus, except for the Big Boss, who could make any decision or veto any other decisions whenever he wanted. I was looking for someone who had the patience to deal with the group's decision-making style and the Big Boss's ability to veto. I asked questions about how the candidates used influence with their managers and their ability to manage up. “Give me an example of a time you made a decision and a senior manager changed the decision. What did you do?” I also asked questions about how each candidate made decisions within their teams: “How do you decide which issues require you to make decisions alone, and when do you make decisions with your group?”

Another time, I coached an agile team on interviewing skills so they could look for people who were interested in the high collaboration and interaction that's part of an agile team. I could have asked them to describe how they collaborate, but that question is too vague. Instead, I asked these questions: “Give me a recent example of a time you gave feedback to someone whose code was not going to work with your code.” One candidate looked puzzled and said, “The last time I did that, we were both wrong. It's a good thing I didn't start off with the judgment that I was right and he was wrong.” A different candidate explained the situation and concluded with, “It's not my job to change my code; it was the other person's.” Both candidates had the technical skills to succeed. In fact, the second candidate may have had better design skills. But the first candidate was hired because he fit into the collaborative culture.

In the end, it is important to consider the unique core values in your company, as did one of my colleagues who works in the retail business. In that organization, one of the core values of is respecting the customer. When hiring managers interview clerks, they ask several questions such as, “Have you been in a situation where a customer became belligerent? What did you do?” My colleague wants to make sure the candidate can keep his or her cool, especially under pressure.


Too often successful hiring is left up to pure luck. Instead, consider interviewing for cultural fit and give this aspect as least much weight as you do technical skills. With this approach, you may find that you are better able to integrate people into already-existing teams. As a result, it's likely some people will say you are just lucky. But you will know that it's skill rather than luck.

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Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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