Look Beyond Culture Fit to Develop a Cohesive Team

When the front lines of HR are reviewing job applications, they’re likely scanning for experience and education. But for executives charged with unifying and leading teams, making a great hire requires something else as well: cohesion.

A team that shares a common vision and works toward it with shared values can move mountains. On the other hand, anyone who has been stuck on a disconnected or disjointed team knows that even the most talented team members can’t make much of a difference in moving the group forward.

Some leaders rely on cultural fit to determine how their teams are built. But cultural fit is no recipe for easy cohesion. In fact, studies have shown that using “fit” to guide team creation can actually leave you with a group that’s less creative and innovative.

Culture Fit and Cohesion

Business execs who trumpet the power of cultural fit can be forgiven for thinking it’s a cure-all for team troubles. Studies have shown that how well a candidate fits in with the office culture and other coworkers can impact everything from collaboration and idea generation to productivity and morale. That explains why 80 percent of employers identified cultural fit as a top priority, according to a recent survey by Cubiks. Research also shows that it’s incredibly common for teammates who share backgrounds or social identities (such as Red Sox fans or avid runners) to form closer bonds when working together.

Yet cultural fit and cohesion are not synonymous, though they might be used interchangeably. In fact, cultural fit is now more focused on “snap judgments” based on who managers would rather be around every day in the office, according to an op-ed from Lauren Rivera, a management professor at Northwestern University, in The New York Times.

Hiring managers might use culture fit as the reason to hire someone over an equally qualified candidate because they happen to be from the same hometown or because they chanced into an animated conversation about their shared love of craft beer. And while it’s true that small talk can make the time pass by faster at work, it’s not an accurate gauge of how well those teams will actually perform or how cohesive they’ll be.

Strength in Differences

Savvy business leaders know that cohesive teams aren’t built from members who mirror one another superficially, whether that means shared hobbies or similar alumna maters. The strongest and most cohesive teams share something much deeper: core values that align with the company’s culture. For instance, everyone on the team has a creative streak and favors rapid iteration, or they all work best through constant dialogue and open brainstorming. Those are deep personality traits, not superficial signifiers.

Researchers have actually shown that in terms of things like background, race and interests, the more diverse the group, the more cohesive it will be. One study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that groups with at least one “socially distinct” new member of the group performed significantly better than homogenous groups.

Team members who share common backgrounds and interests tend to feel comfortable and relaxed around one another, the lead author notes. But in more diverse groups, coworkers are nudged out of their comfort zones a bit and seem more able to tackle complex problems.

In other words, teams with a common culture might enjoy hanging out after work together the most. But in the workplace, it’s the diverse, different teams that actually cohere the best and outperform the others.


This is an updated version of an earlier post, originally published Aug. 20, 2015. 


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