Do you feel that you “click” with your co-workers? Do you unintentionally act “in sync” when working on a project together? If so, then you and your organization might be experiencing the benefits of cultural alignment. Here are just two benefits of a stronger culture:
- Employees that strongly align with their team cultures are more productive and less likely to leave
- Organizations that prioritize cultural alignment in the hiring process experience higher post-hire performance and retention
Cultural alignment (also called “culture add”) has been the topic of substantial empirical research. Thanks to over 40 years of study in organizational psychology, we know a lot about culture.
We’ve synthesized this impressive body of academic research to share everything that HR and People leaders need to know about cultural alignment: what cultural alignment is, why it matters and how to measure it.
What is Culture and Cultural Alignment?
Culture is the consistent, observable patterns of behavior in organizations - or how the organization “does” things. Cultural alignment is defined as the degree to which an individual’s values match the values of the organization. For instance, imagine an organization has a culture defined by collaboration, taking risks, and giving direct feedback. An employee that also values collaboration, taking risks, and giving direct feedback has high cultural alignment, while an employee that values self-reliance, predictability, and aversion to direct feedback has low cultural alignment.
Why is Cultural Alignment Important?
A strong culture is one that is shared by organizational members, meaning that most employees in the organization show consensus regarding the values of the company. The stronger a company’s culture, the more likely it is to affect the way employees think and behave.
When employees are culturally aligned, there are immediate psychological benefits that influence day-to-day interactions with co-workers. Research by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that high cultural alignment leads co-workers to:
- Communicate more effectively. When co-workers share the same values, there is a reduced chance of them misunderstanding each other.
- Predict each other’s behavior. Co-workers who hold shared values have similar motives and goals, promoting confidence in how others will act.
- Like each other more. People like others who are similar to ourselves, giving credence to the statement that ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ Because co-workers with aligned values are more similar, they like each other more.
- Feel more trust in the team. Because value alignment leads co-workers to agree what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in a given situation, employees feel more trust that their co-workers will have their back when needed. Trust leads to psychological safety, which allows people to share and accept greater diversity of thought.
All of these day-to-day psychological benefits of value alignment – communication, predictability, liking, trust – lead to better outcomes that People, Talent, and all business leaders should care about. McKinsey research of over 1,000 organizations and three million individuals found that organizations in the top quartile of strong cultures return 60% more to shareholders than companies with median cultures, and 200% higher than those in the bottom quartile of cultures.
Creating Strong Cultures through Hiring and Onboarding
If an organization wants to encourage cultural alignment, research has found it can either
- A) recruit and select new employees that organically align with its values
- B) socialize new employees to adopt the organization’s values.
Additional research has found a positive business impact for organizations that recruit and select based on cultural alignment. These organizations have lower costs for training, orientation, and other activities meant to help employees internalize the values of the organization.
At Searchlight, we’ve found that new hires with high cultural alignment tend to have a higher Quality of Hire in their first year. For this reason, we believe hiring is a more effective way of building cultural alignment than socialization. Selection and recruitment is the first line of defense for building cultural alignment.
We also recognize that hiring well is not always enough. At Searchlight, onboarding and socialization is our second line of defense for building cultural alignment. We include actionable, science-backed Onboarding Guides in the Searchlight platform to foster cultural alignment during onboarding.
How does Searchlight measure culture?
Now that we’ve established the major benefits and business impact of cultural alignment, it’s important to know how to measure and assess it without bias. Too often, organizations can fall into the trap of selecting for “culture fit” which discriminates against people from different backgrounds or working styles. It’s important to understand cultural alignment is not culture fit, and the best way to protect against bias is to have a standard and objective way to measure and describe culture.
So, how can organizations unbiasedly measure and describe culture and cultural alignment? Jennifer Chatman founded the field of cultural alignment in organizational psychology research and established that the majority of organizational culture values can be deduced (or simplified) into six fundamental dimensions called the Organizational Culture Profile (OCP):
Innovative vs. Structured: Are people willing to experiment, move fast, and take risks, or do they tend to prefer predictable working conditions, following rules, and being careful?
Approach to Feedback
Conflict Forward vs. Conflict Preventative: Do people confront conflict directly or do they prefer to avoid conflict?
Collaborative vs. Self-Reliant: Do individuals work in collaboration with others and exhibit a team orientation, or do people prefer to work alone and exhibit a competitive orientation?
Results-Oriented vs. Supportive: Does the organization maintain high expectations of performance and achievement, or does the organization emphasize security of employment?
Customer-Oriented vs. Self-Oriented: Do people prioritize work that benefits customers, or work that is enjoyable or intrinsically rewarding for themselves?
Detail Oriented vs. Vision-Oriented: Do people tend to pay attention to details, or are they “big picture” thinkers?
At Searchlight, we lean into the OCP research and we measure an individual’s culture alignment by focusing on these six dimensions. Specifically, we create a 3D picture of the individual’s culture traits by asking the individual and their prior managers and colleagues to answer a series of questions about each dimension. For instance, this is one question we ask to measure Team Orientation:
Notice that there is no wrong answer. Culture traits represent preferences about how people like to work. Any culture trait taken to the extreme has downsides, so it’s more important to measure where a company's culture falls on the spectrum than to describe the culture in binary terms.
We have worked with clients to do our own scientific research to test this measurement method. We found that our assessment of value alignment has no adverse impact and is both valid and reliable (which indicates a high-quality assessment).
The importance of recognizing subcultures
We should clarify that an organization can have one general culture, and multiple subcultures. Cultures that emerge within different departments, branches, or geographic locations are called subcultures. Especially in our increasingly globalized world, subcultures will arise from personal characteristics of employees and managers, as well as the different conditions under which work is performed.
For example, we recently completed an Organizational Skills Mapping exercise for a 100-person Sales Department for a 1,000 person B2B SaaS company with offices in EMEA and North America. The data showed us that the EMEA sales culture was more collaborative and supportive than the sales culture in North America. When we showed the results to the sales leadership, they were unsurprised and informed us that the EMEA team works in person in London while the salespeople in North America worked remotely! In situations like this, it is important to be aware of cultural differences to adjust hiring practices and onboarding programs to suit each subculture and maximize performance of each team.
Culture alignment has a significant impact on business performance. The Organizational Culture Profile (OCP) can demystify the concept of culture to business leaders and create a standard for benchmarking organizations and subcultures within the same organization. We recommend hiring and onboarding with culture in mind. Strong culture alignment reduces mishires and generates quantifiable business value by cultivating happy, engaged, high-performing employees.