Article: Outlook 2020: Seek cultural adaptability, not fitment


Outlook 2020: Seek cultural adaptability, not fitment

An organization can be a blend of different kinds of employees - adapters and misfits. And that does not have to be a bad thing. Read on to know why.
Outlook 2020: Seek cultural adaptability, not fitment

The past decade observed the discourse on talent acquisition evolving to a combination of hiring for both skills and cultural fitment. Innumerable studies have proven the business benefits of hiring cultural fit talent. However, recent academic works make a case of seeking a new trait when hiring talent - cultural adaptability. 

What is cultural adaptability?

Cultural adaptability is “the ability to rapidly learn and conform to organizational cultural norms as they change over time,” according to a study “Enculturation Trajectories: Language, Cultural Adaptation, and Individual Outcomes in Organizations”. Organizational culture is dynamic, especially with many becoming increasingly digital. Employees who are adapters, are able to stay a cultural fit even when cultures evolve in such agile organizations. The research found such employees to be more successful than the ones who exhibited higher cultural fitment when hired.

How are adapters different?

Cultural adapters demonstrate varying degrees of cultural fitment with their colleagues. They may not have very high alignment with the company culture when they are hired, but as time elapses they adapt to the organizational culture. As compared to the employees who may be high on cultural fitment when hired - but if they are not adapters, they will become cultural outsiders when the company’s way of working evolves.

Organizations also house cultural misfits - people who do not conform to the company’s ideology and purpose and see things very differently. Their approach to work and ideas for problems may be different from the organization’s, and sometimes this is what is required for creativity. But since they are cultural outsiders, it is difficult for people to believe in their ideas.

What does this mean for the organization?

The combination of academic works all point to one direction - that cultural alignment doesn’t end at the point of hire. Every employee follows a very distinct enculturation trajectory - if you are an adapter, you can align with the changing culture; or you can outgrow the culture and be a misfit. 

This implies that an organization can be a blend of different kinds of employees - adapters and misfits. And that does not have to be a bad thing. Both these types of individuals can bring unique benefits to the organization, if harnessed correctly.

What does it mean for your 2020 Talent Acquisition Strategy?

The aforementioned academic works have given a lot of food for thought for talent acquisition organizations, so much so that a case could be made on revisiting the talent acquisition strategy going into 2020. Here are a few ways in which the inference from academic studies can be implied to the organization:

Create a talent strategy which: 

Focuses on cultural adaptability

Create a strategy which is immune to short-termism, and does not look at culture fitment in the now. Organizations have started using assessment mechanisms to measure fitment, but those could be evolved to measuring adaptability. Another tactical way to bring this change is for recruiters to seek cultural diversity in the candidates’ resumes - that can be the first filter to test adaptability. Hiring managers should also be coached to ask questions on employee adaptability to varied environments in the past. A move from a sales organization to a professional services organization and excelling there could be a leading indicator of an employee’s adaptability. Cultural adaptability also has a positive impact on retention as adapters aren’t rigid and can change as the organizational culture changes. 

Opens the gate for people of different fitment levels

Create a strategy which enables cognitive diversity by providing space to both adapters and cultural misfits in the setup. Unlike adapters, misfits do not identify with all the ways of working of the business - which means there is a likelihood for them to question the existing setup and bring innovation and positive changes to the organization. It is up to the organization to create a psychologically safe environment for the misfits to also thrive. 

A balance between both sets of people is important in an organization because adapters bring commitment and efficiency while misfits can bring creativity. When John Sculley was at the helm at Apple in the 1980s and Steve Jobs had been an adapter (instead of a misfit), there may have never been a chain of events which led to Steve Jobs leaving Apple in 1985, only to come back in 1997 and reviving Apple to what it is today.

Ensures misfits do not become outsiders

It is very much possible for the misfits to end up becoming cultural outsiders - the falling-out between Steve Jobs and John Sculley at Apple is the most extreme example there is. Research finds that for misfits start feeling as social and cultural outsider when they are not able to identify to be a part of any social clique. At the same time, the study also found that the misfits who had very close social ties within a defined social clique were able to let go of their outsider status.

Enculturation of employees is an interesting academic topic - as the study found out, people follow distinct trajectories to cultural alignment and adaptation. People who adapted early were found to have become outsiders later and likely to leave the organization.

Understands efficiency isn’t affected

A downside to cognitive diversity is that it could affect execution if people are not aligned even at the implementation stage. Diversity of opinion should be tabled at the ideation stages of any project. Everyone should enter the execution stage having bought the idea and be aligned on the purpose and objectives. Leaders need to use their ability to facilitate diversity and conformity at different stages of a project.

Would 2020 see talent organizations retort to seek cultural adaptability instead of just cultural fitment in their candidates?

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Topics: Culture, #Outlook2020

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