The One (and Only) Question You Need to Ask to Measure Cultural Fit


Since it's only one question, you need to know the answer before asking the question. In this case, it's essential to understand how fit relates to on-the-job performance. The Hiring Formula for Success shown below describes this relationship.

The quick explanation: Ability in relationship to fit drives motivation and ultimately performance.

The longer explanation: On-the-job performance is dependent on the ability to do the work in relationship to fit with the organization and it's this relationship that drives motivation. Since motivation is so important, it’s squared. The fit factors include cultural fit, fit with the job itself and fit with the hiring manager’s style. Ability in this formula consists of technical competence, team skills, organizational skills and problem-solving and thinking ability. As we’ve all seen, the ability to do the work without the right fit will demotivate a person pretty quickly and result in underperformance, dissatisfaction and unnecessary turnover. (Note: I'll be holding a webcast on December 7, 2016 describing this concept.)

In his book, The End of Average, Harvard Professor Todd Rose considers fit the driver of personal excellence. He refers to fit as the context of the job and without fully considering it for hiring purposes individual success is problematic.

As most of you know I consider the following to be the most important interview question of all time.

What would you consider to be your most significant career accomplishment to date? Could you please tell me all about it?

Using this question as the framework, here’s how to assess all of the factors in the hiring formula with specific focus on the fit factors. The best way to get the full value of this question is to first answer it for yourself using these fact-finding prompts to guide your answers.

  • Please give me a two-minute overview of the project. Be very specific including dates and how long it took to complete. What was the big deliverable?
  • Did someone assign you to the project or did you volunteer for it? Why?
  • What were the big changes you made or directed?
  • Describe the single biggest challenge you faced on this project and walk me through how you resolved it.
  • Describe who was on the team, their roles and your role. Who did you influence the most? Who did you coach? Who coached you? Who did you have the most conflict with and how did you deal with that?
  • Who did you have to communicate the results or status to on a regular basis? What form did this take?
  • Describe the single biggest decision you faced and walk me through how you made it. Was it the correct decision? Would you make the same one today?
  • What was the culture like in terms of pace, resources available, organizational structure, sophistication, decision-making and values and ethics? What did you like most? Least?
  • Give me some examples in which you took the initiative or did more than you were required to do. Did you ever take the initiative doing things that weren’t particularly motivating? If so, why?
  • In this project did you have a chance to do the type of work you like the most? Why do you like this type of work? What did you like the least?
  • What was your manager like in terms of coaching, delegating and supporting you? What did you like most and least about your manager? Who was your best manager? Who was your worst? Collectively how would you describe your ideal manager?
  • I assume you put a plan together for this project. Can you please describe it and how did you manage to it? Did you achieve the plan? If you didn’t have a plan how did you manage your daily activities and prioritize your work?
  • If you could do this project over again, what would you do differently? Why? What did you learn about yourself from this project?
  • What kind of recognition for this work, formal or otherwise, did you receive? In your mind was this sufficient given all of the work you did?

This is enough fact-finding to get some assessment of all of the factors in the hiring formula for success. It takes about 15-20 minutes to fully understand the accomplishment, but there's more. This same question needs to be asked at least twice more for different accomplishments to observe the candidate’s trend of performance and growth over time. Now you have enough information to complete the Quality of Hire Talent Scorecard which converts the hiring formula into an assessment grid. (The video explains how this is done.)

The key to assessing talent, fit and motivation is that all of the factors must be assessed in comparison to real job needs, not to a laundry list of skills, experiences and required competences. Ability without fit is a recipe for dissatisfaction, underperformance and turnover. With it, it becomes a great hire.

How to Hire for Cultural Fit

In a recent post – How to Hire for Motivation – and as part of this "How to Hire" series I suggested interviewers need to break through the veneer of presentation skills to accurately assess both competency AND motivation. It’s important to recognize that motivation to get a job and social assertiveness is not motivation to do the job.

Uncovering the source of the candidate’s intrinsic motivation is essential for increasing interviewing accuracy. Most often this is something about the work itself in combination with the team involved, the person’s manager, and the mission of the company or its culture. So before hiring someone you need to understand not only what’s driving the person to excel but also the circumstances involved. Once this is done you then need to assess cultural fit. This technique is covered in Lynda's Performance-based Hiring training program summarized in the video.

Here are the factors involved in determining a company’s true culture. As you'll see it's a bit different than the one described on their website.

The Factors Defining a Company's Real Culture

  • The pace of the organization and its position on the corporate growth curve. Fast-growing start-ups are different from their more mature and slow moving adults.
  • The depth and quality of the resources available. Doing everything yourself or with a small team is different than having a support staff that expects you to leverage its ability.
  • The quality and leadership style of the hiring manager. For purposes of determining managerial fit, this factor relates to the manager’s approach to managing the new hire in comparison to how the new hire wants and needs to be managed and developed.
  • The quality of the people the person works with on a daily basis. The best people want to work with the best people and don’t do well when they don’t. And vice versa.
  • The company’s financial performance, its competition and its industry. Underperforming companies (and departments) have a lot more stress than those hitting their targets.
  • The company’s mission, value system and ethics. Whether set on high or at the local level having them is less important than how their implemented.
  • Clarity of the individual and team expectations. If a person isn’t clear about his/her expectations, the company culture won’t matter much.

For accurately determining job and culture fit I suggest the use of a performance-based interviewing process. This involves painting a detailed word picture of the candidate’s major accomplishments and then comparing them to the actual work the person needs to do to be successful. The process starts by describing a major objective (e.g., lead a project team to redesign and build the dashboard for customer satisfaction by product line) and asking the candidate to describe something he/she has done that’s most similar.

The first phase of the fact-finding involves understanding the person’s accomplishments from a scope, scale and impact basis. Getting at motivation involves finding out where the person went the extra mile. If there’s a reasonable fit on these factors the fact-finding shifts to determining cultural fit.

Here are some fact-finding probes you can use as part of understanding the same accomplishment from a cultural fit standpoint:

  1. How fast was your company growing? Did you like that pace? Why or what would you have preferred?
  2. How were decisions made? Were you comfortable with this process? Give me an example of a decision you made using this approach. How would you have rather made that decision?
  3. What was your manager like? What did you like most about your manager? Least? How do you like to be managed? How does this approach impact your performance?
  4. Who was on your project team? How did you get assigned to the team? How did you impact the team? Who did you prefer to work with and why? Who didn’t you like to work with and why? Who did you influence the most? Who influenced you the most? Did you coach anyone? Did anyone coach you?
  5. Were you aligned with the company’s mission and values? What was most important to you and least important? Did you have any mismatches here that caused problems? What would you change if you could?

You can’t measure cultural fit in a vacuum. Past performance doing comparable work matters the most. Even if the person can do the work but is not intrinsically motivated to do it, the person will likely become bored quickly. However, if the person is competent and motivated to do the work required AND fits the culture you should of course hire the person. All three factors are essential. Any one factor without the other two will result in the person underperforming, yet that’s exactly why so many good people wind up getting hired for the wrong job.

To Hire For Cultural Fit, Apply the "No Jerks" Rule

One of my YPO clients asked me to co-write an article on cultural fit with him for their group’s internal website. YPO, or Young Presidents Organization, is comprised of thousands of CEOs around the world with companies over $20 million in revenue that are run by people typically 30 to 50 years old. Cultural fit is a critical topic for them.

I suggested hiring for cultural fit isn’t that tough as long as you follow this simple rule:

Rule 1: Don’t hire jerks.

By jerks I mean people who always complain, they’re negative, they need to be told what to do, they are unwilling to compromise or they just don’t get along. Few people are like this all of the time. However, the circumstances of the job can make anyone become jerk-like.

So to accurately measure cultural fit, you need to carefully determine someone’s propensity for becoming a jerk at your company. You can’t rely on personality and gut feelings to make this important assessment. This is done far too often: excluding the right people for the wrong reasons and hiring the wrong ones without the proper due diligence.

How to spot a jerk

Be careful. Anyone can become a jerk if three or more of the following conditions apply:

  • The person took the job primarily for economic reasons. This can become a problem once the new hire discovers the job isn’t as good as hoped.
  • Job expectations weren’t clarified up front and the actual job turned out to be less than desired.
  • The new hire and the hiring manager don’t get along. Anyone can become a jerk under this situation.
  • The person has a big ego. One POTUS candidate comes to mind, maybe two. These are the perpetual jerks. Avoid these if you can but sometimes they bring a lot to the table.
  • The candidate hasn’t coached, trained or developed other people including peers and support staff. True jerks never do this, so this is very revealing. A person is definitely not a jerk if people regularly ask this person for advice and he/she gives it freely.
  • The person’s work style doesn’t match the pace of the organization or the resources available. This is big. That’s why people from big slow-growth rule-bound companies struggle at smaller companies where the rules are made up daily.
  • The person isn’t flexible enough to deal with change. Sometimes people who are very structured and work in structured jobs find it difficult to deal with change.
  • The person hasn’t collaborated in the past with the types of people he/she needs to collaborate with in the current job.

By digging into the person’s major accomplishments by asking the most important question of all time, you’ll be able to determine all of the above. While avoiding hiring jerks is important, the same questioning pattern can be used to identify exceptional people. In this case, look for the factors that indicate a high degree of job satisfaction, the ability to work with others and the flexibility to match the pace of the organization.

How to identify people who would be a good cultural fit

Of course, to determine the job satisfaction part you’ll need to prepare a performance-based job description before you even start the process. The big point though is that you need to make sure the person is taking the job for the right reasons. That’s how you avoid hiring good people who eventually become jerks.

You can test for this a few days before making the offer by asking the candidate to forget the salary for a moment and ask if he/she really wants the job. If the person says no, don’t make the offer. You’ll be hiring someone who could become dissatisfied very quickly. This is a real clue the candidate has not been thoroughly vetted, the company rushed the hiring process or the candidate isn’t very discriminating.

If the person says yes, ask them to explain why. Then separate his/her answers into short- and long-term factors. Short-term factors include things like the employer brand, location and job title. Long-term factors include work that is motivating and important, working with the team who he/she has met, the leadership qualities of the hiring manager and the chance to be in a culture that maps to the candidate’s internal motivators.

If the emphasis is on the short-term factors the potential for dissatisfaction is high. When people leave jobs for short-term reasons and accept them for other short-term reasons a condition known as the vicious cycle of underperformance and dissatisfaction is created.

However, when people accept jobs for long-term career reasons and they have been thoroughly vetted, have a clear understanding of real job needs, can work well with the team and their work style maps closely with hiring manager’s, they will become exceptional employees. Bottom line: This is how you prevent hiring jerks and how you hire for cultural fit.

Why Hiring for Cultural Fit is a Cultural Fit Killer



Company culture is not fixed, something set in stone or architected from on-high. It depends more on how fast your company is growing, whether the right people are assigned to the right roles and if the people, the managers and culture are flexible enough to adapt to changing business conditions.

People underperform whenever the work they are doing doesn’t align with their motivating needs, if they have a conflict with who manages them or how they’re managed, and if the work they’re doing is out of sync with some grander company purpose. This all impacts their attitude and their “cultural fitness.”

When it comes to hiring, rather than filter people on cultural fit, filter them on job fit first. Then make sure they can work with the hiring manager and with all sorts of different people in all types of situations. If you get these parts right your culture will be just fine. As a result you’ll not only have a much more diverse workforce, but a more adaptable culture as well.

Over the years I’ve found a simple way to get most of these fit issues right. It starts by first recognizing there are only four types of jobs and these map to different stages in a company’s growth. The graphic highlights this concept. As you read the descriptions below recognize that all of these roles are required at every phase of a company’s growth but this mix changes over time along with the company culture.

The Four Basic Work Types and Their Impact on Cultural Fit

Thinkers: These people are the idea generators, strategists, inventors and creative types. They’re at the front-end of the growth curve and their work covers new products, new business ideas, and different ways of doing everyday things. Sometimes they get in the way once the company or projects begin to grow but these people are essential whenever a company needs to rethink how it does anything. From a cultural fit standpoint these people might not think, look or act like everyone else but that’s a good thing since the best Thinkers think out the box. So unless you want to continue building the same boxes, you’ll need to add some Thinkers to your team.

Builders: These people convert ideas from the Thinker into reality. Entrepreneurs, project managers, and turn-around executives are typical jobs that emphasize the Builder component. They thrive in rapid change situations, make decisions with incomplete information and can create some level of order out of chaos. They feel strangled in maturing organizations. Again, most of these people don’t easily fit the cultural norms, but excluding them ensures anything that needs to be built from scratch or rebuilt won’t be built as rapidly or as well as it could.

Improvers: These are the people who take an existing project, process or team, organize it and make it better. They’re more process focused than the Builders and thrive in maturing organizations. They build teams, help develop people, add organizational structure, and implement major and minor change. In large companies they need to do all of this despite heavy resistance. In fast-growing companies they build the bridges that allow the company to reach the next plateau. From a cultural fit standpoint, they’re the people who need to be able to deal with everyone, manage anyone and keep an even keel despite the turbulence. While you want plenty of Improvers in your company, if you have too many, change will be plodding as they focus more on getting agreement rather than making things happen.

Producers: These are the people who execute a repeatable process, ensuring quality and delivery. This can range from handling transactional business activities to more complex technical and skills-intensive tasks like auditing the performance of a big system, running a process-driven department, designing and testing products or analyzing the monthly financial results. While every company needs Producers, when they’re misplaced or overtake an organization, they impede progress and prevent change. Regardless, excluding Producers from consideration for cultural reasons is equivalent to saying, “We don’t care about great process or exceptional quality.”

Work Type Balance is the Key to Building Teams and Creating a Dynamic Culture

Building a great culture starts by building a great team. But the team building needs to come before the cultural fitting. Most people are a blend of all four work types with one or two usually dominant. As companies grow and change over time, it’s important to get the collective balance right. This way the actual culture changes and morphs as necessary to meet changing business conditions. Unfortunately this work type balance is rarely considered as new people are hired and others reassigned. Building and growing a successful company is hard work and every hiring decision is critical. Using work types as part of the selection process can make the task a little easier and a lot more logical.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He's also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. His new video program provides job seekers inside secrets on what it takes to get a job in the hidden job market.

These 5 Predictors of Cultural Fit are Typically Ignored

IMAGE: Getty Images
 Your company's culture is less controllable than you think. Most of it depends on your boss and the company's growth rate.

I spent a few days last week at a recruiters conference in San Francisco hosted by Greenhouse--a hot new talent management system that every tech company in Silicon Valley is glomming onto. The big topic in three sessions was on the importance of cultural fit in driving employee engagement and job satisfaction and how to assess it during the interview. This is a critical topic since when otherwise talented people underperform it's usually due to a mismatch on cultural fit.

As I asked people to describe their company's culture most used some combination of the same words: drive for results, focus on the customer, driven to excel, maximizing employee satisfaction and a boundless team spirit. Despite how you label it I contend that cultural fit is largely dependent on these different core factors: the work the person is doing and how satisfying it is, the quality of the person's relationship with the hiring manager, the ability to work in a collaborative environment, fit with the pace of the organization, the bureaucratic structure of the organization and the candidate's overall adaptability to deal with these factors as they change.

All of the these factors can be assessed by digging into the candidate's major accomplishments using the most significant accomplishment question in the Performance-based Interviewing process. Here's how this works.

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How to assess the five factors that determine cultural fit:

1. Rate of change

The primary determinant of a company's culture is its growth rate or lack of it. Ichak Adizes' corporate life cycle model offers a good way to visualize this. People in 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.

2. Degree of bureaucratic 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 any VC-backed startup versus 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, 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 upfront 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. A job fit problem is easy to recognize: It happens when anyone is surprised that the job he/she was interviewed for is different than the one he/she is actually 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 who 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 after the person is hired.