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Diversity Drives Innovation and the Weird Ideas that Change the World - Culture Fit vs Culture Add.

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Four diverse employees working together in an office.
Four diverse employees working together.
"Diversity drives innovation – when we limit who can contribute, we in turn limit what problems we can solve." —Telle Whitney, Women & Technology Advocate & Expert

Organizations, teams, and people who get hung up on age, gender, and skin color miss the bottom line.

Why is it so difficult for companies to hire and retain minorities when it's widely known that each person possesses unique knowledge, experiences, ideas, and skills? Look to your left; look to your right! Most corporations struggle with diversity and inclusion, visibly and statistically. It seems hiring managers still fail to see beyond themselves and want to maintain the status quo in their cozy comfort zones.

Research should not have to show the benefits of hiring African Americans, Latinos, women, and other minorities. It's common sense and simply the equitable thing to do.

We need to embrace, not ignore, or temper our differences. But that's what happens when managers are on autopilot. While they want diversity and inclusion, they can unknowingly prevent it by failing to recognize their own preference for comfort. Hiring is supposed to be objective, but it's typically subjective or based on "the right fit."

Unsurprisingly, managers usually offer jobs to those they find familiar. They may identify with and find comfort in knowing the candidate attended a recognized university, shared the same stomping grounds, or engages within common circles. Familiarity breeds a level of comfort, but it constrains diversity, inclusion, and innovation.

Robert Sutton, Stanford professor and author of "Weird Ideas That Work," said corporate executives often claim they value innovation and creativity but usually reward conformity. "Instead of hiring comfortable, familiar types of people who know the rules…" he says, "corporations should hire eccentrics who ignore the rules... this is the only way to really achieve their ideals."

While ignoring rules might work for Silicon Valley, most organizations won't adopt such practices, but they still need different people with different thoughts. They need people who can stretch their imaginations and sculpt new molds instead of fitting the same old mold. They need diversity and more ideas– weird ideas like those that sparked the iPhone, electric cars and railways, and commercial space tourism. Managers must recognize that differences can be uncomfortable, but that's good because it's a sign of progress. While it's natural to feel uncomfortable around unfamiliar faces, it's always an opportunity for growth and development. We don't go to work for comfort or profit by being comfortable.

Five diverse employees working together in an office.
Five diverse employees working together.

Sameness is a liability

While undiversified organizations, teams, and cultures make us comfortable, homogeneity fosters groupthink. Groupthink inhibits diversity and inclusion initiatives and decreases innovation, creative problem-solving, and marketing power - the marketing power required to create the services and products that serve the needs of our diverse world. As Rebecca Skilbeck, Head of Customer Insights at PageUp, said, "How can we create products and services for a multifaceted and complex society with a homogenous workforce which isn't reflective of buyers?

According to a 2018 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by Michael Gee, "white men continue to dominate executive and managerial roles." The more explicatory question is, how can white men create products and services that women and non-whites value, given that they are a homogenous workforce that doesn't reflect its minority buyers?

The short answer is they can't – not on their own.

Beyond the skirting of direct or "tough-love" language in the media, another part of the DE&I issue is that corporate managers typically make in-group hiring decisions based on culture fit vs. culture add. And as a group, they are comfortable, familiar with, and loyal to group norms. While groups are known for optimal decision-making, groupthink undermines organizational efforts to hire diverse individuals. An HBR article reflects these sentiments, "Diverse Teams Feel Less Comfortable — and That's Why They Perform Better."

Groups or teams can only be as creative as the diversity of their members and their ideas, values, experiences, and skills pooled together.

"I hate diversity workshops. Real change comes from having enough comfort to be really honest and say something very uncomfortable." — Michelle Obama

Culture Fit vs Culture Add: Group Norms Derail DE&I

Group norms are implicit and may be uncomfortable to discuss, but they influence our decisions.

Workplace DE&I goes beyond hiring minorities. It's an ongoing learning process of patience, empathy, self-awareness, and awareness of cultural norms, values, and unspoken rules. The variations in verbal and non-verbal communication styles between and across cultures often cause people to misread cues, leading to misunderstandings, disengagement, exclusion, and ultimately resignation or termination.

For instance, suppose direct eye contact is a cultural group norm among white professionals (and it is in the U.S.), and avoiding direct eye contact is a cultural norm for Black professionals. While each showed respect in their own way, unwittingly, both parties could perceive each other as condescending, reticent, or disrespectful. A hiring manager could also perceive a candidate's lack of eye contact as avoidance or lack of confidence.

Four diverse employees, representative of culture fit vs culture add.
Four diverse employees.

Once Caucasians are aware that they tend to make more eye contact when listening than speaking, and African Americans tend to make more eye contact when speaking than when listening – they are more likely to see the other as willing and interested rather than resistant and disinterested.

Eye contact is just one of the ways people can violate the expected social or group norms.

So, while a minority candidate may have graduated from a familiar college and possess all the right hard skills, a manager could disqualify the candidate for simply not making eye contact. Group norms can prevent hiring managers from putting their finger on it, but there's something that didn't feel right - like the lack of eye contact that makes them decide the minority candidate wasn't the right fit.

Bias is one thing, but failure to know about and recognize these seemingly minute cultural norms and nuances hinders an organization's efforts to create a diversity, equity, and inclusion culture.

Skilbeck said managers hire people like themselves, especially when no clear definition of culture fit exists. Implying that white managers should look for a "culture-add" rather than a "culture fit," Skilbeck said, "Instead of asking are they a good cultural fit? Ask how can they enrich our existing team culture?"

So, let's ask white hiring managers: how can women and non-whites enrich your existing team, market share, and bottom line?


Complementary information to move the conversation forward:

Organizations must diversify their social knowledge and intelligence if they want a diverse culture.

You are probably familiar with Oprah, Sidney Poitier, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and sports legends like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Colin Kaepernick. If not, you should be.

Here are a few African Americans that Caucasians need to know and become comfortable with because they are a few of the household names, historical pioneers, and legends who invented, contributed, and advanced our culture and the technology that enriches and brings comfort to our lives today.

  • Henry T. Sampson, Purdue graduate, author, and former aerospace engineer, pioneered the technology now used in our cell phones.

  • James West, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and prolific writer, holds over 250 patents and invented the foil electret microphone, now used in 90 percent of all contemporary microphones.

  • Lonnie Johnson, a former Air Force and NASA engineer, invented the popular and highly profitable Super Soaker Nerf gun.

  • Valerie Thomas, a physicist, inventor, and NASA data analyst, developed the technology behind advanced TV screens and modern-day 3D technology.

Let's not forget where we might be today without Mae C. Jemison's legendary brilliance and the contributions of Stephanie Wilson, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and many more. Click here to learn more.

Note from the author:

From leadership to Tech to HR and culture, APWS closely examines the latest trends, topics, issues, and undertakings in the workplace.

APWS leadership articles do not sugarcoat or comfort the majority because they reinforce the same entrenched behaviors. We provide facts, reveal truths, and provide solutions, information, and best practices for people and the business community.

At APWS, we discuss things that matter and make points that serve the greater good.

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