The biggest hiring mistake of all time is making a decision to hire someone (or not) based on your first impression of them. The second biggest mistake is hiring a talented person who doesn’t fit in with your company’s culture. Cultural misfits will underperform, regardless of their talent.

Over the years, it’s become pretty clear to me that cultural fit is largely dependent on a few core factors: motivation to do the actual work required, fit with the team and the manager, fit with the pace and structure of the organization, and the candidate’s overall adaptability. To assess these factors, you should start your search process with a performance-based job description and then use a performance-based interview. These two steps will allow you to dig deeply into a candidate’s major accomplishments and specifically look for cultural fit indicators.

Here’s a quick overview of how you can assess the five dimensions of cultural fit:

1. Pace

The primary determinant of a company’s culture is the rate of change at the organization. Dr. Ichak Adizes’ corporate life cycle model offers a good way to visualize this.

Fast-growing companies with limited resources must make quick decisions, rapidly adapt to changing business conditions, implement continuous process improvement programs, and be able to instantly collaborate.

Stable and moderately growing organizations are more rule-bound, implementing change is more complex, and decisions are slow in coming due to the heavy review cycle.

When asking the most significant accomplishment question during an interview, find out how the candidate made decisions, whether the person was cautious or not, how well the person could deal with ambiguity, and how fast the person could change direction. Make sure you map this dimension of cultural fit to your company’s actual situation. If not, the candidate is unlikely to move at the pace needed to be successful, whether it’s slower or faster.

2. Degree of structure

Structure is different than pace. Some mature organizations are heavily structured at both the organizational and process levels. Others are built to be more flexible and are able to respond more quickly to changing market conditions. Think of Google compared to GM, Apple compared to Boeing, and any VC-backed start-up to any company that’s been around for over 10 years. Being able to create some order out of chaos is not the same as being able to improve or sustain the order of the day. Probe your candidate with questions that will reveal how he/she deals with different degrees of structure.

3. Managerial fit

From a practical standpoint, the hiring manager’s leadership style has the most direct cultural impact on a subordinate’s motivation and performance. Google’s Project Oxygen and Gallup’s Q12 research validate this. Some people can work with all types of managers, and others can’t. When interviewing candidates, first find out where they’ve excelled, then find out the role the manager played. If you don’t get the managerial fit part right, expect lower performance, more conflict, more involvement, decreased employee satisfaction and higher turnover. 

4. Job fit

Success is problematic when hiring a talented person for a generic job. That’s why it’s essential to clarify job expectations up front using a performance-based job description. These types of job descriptions define the top 6-8 performance objectives the new hire needs to achieve in order to be considered successful. By asking candidates to describe an accomplishment most comparable to what needs to be done, patterns begin to emerge that reveal the type of work that motivates the candidate to excel and the cultural circumstances involved. The job fit problem is easy to recognize: it happens when anyone is surprised that the job they were interviewed for is different than the one they’re doing.

5. Adaptability

Few people can excel in all cultures, under all styles of management, and in all types of roles and organizations. The performance-based interview is designed to ferret this out by understanding the circumstances underlying the candidate’s major successes. Even if the person’s past performance matches your current requirements, it’s important to understand if the person has been able to accomplish this work under different circumstances. This is also a strong indicator of upside potential. Those that are the most adaptable are likely to be your best hires, since they’ll be able to grow and take on bigger roles as your company changes over time.

The importance of assessing cultural fit cannot be understated. It’s not a soft skill. It is the primary driver of motivation and on-the-job performance. Unfortunately, many managers and most companies give it lip service, measuring cultural fit more on personality and presentation skills. If you’ve ever hired a talented, smart, affable and articulate person who has underperformed, you’ve experienced the cultural misfit problem firsthand. While it takes extra effort upfront to avoid the problem, it takes months to eliminate the problem once it’s in place.