Architects hiring better

Instead of hiring for cultural fit, architects should be hiring for cultural add. Building the culture rather than buttressing existing biases.

When hiring staff architectural practices tend to focus on skills first. You’ll see job ads for positions emphasising the skills required and experience (an implied skill level). More progressive practices might focus their job ad on the culture of the practice, looking to fill positions based on cultural fit. Both approaches are reasonable, albeit short term thinking. I’m here to challenge that thinking based upon the extensive research and teaching of Adam Grant on prioritising cultural add rather than cultural fit.

Cultural fit

Cultural fit is when an individual’s beliefs, values and attitude are in alignment with the core values and culture of the organisation. It’s sought in employees to ease their assimilation into the organisation. Studies have shown that start-ups hiring for cultural fit rarely fail, they succeed in their IPO’s but tend to plateau. This comes about as a result of groupthink and a lack of diversity in thinking. While they’re resilient to external disruption, they struggle to innovate and change over time.

Cultural fit is essentially a defensive position. Reaffirming and reinforcing the positioning of thinking, knowledge and ideas. Any biases that exist within the organisation are consequently reinforced rather than questioned. It can hold the organisation back from evolving and changing when and where necessary.

Cultural add

Cultural add is what it says on the tin, it’s adding something new to the culture. There’s the unambiguous cultural add such as gender, racial, neural, physical diversity and so on, and then there’s less obvious additions. Design firm IDEO were one of the first organisations to start thinking about cultural contribution (or add). They considered what they were missing culturally and set about addressing the shortcoming, for example, hiring anthropologists to provide new inputs into their designs when going into new environments. A cultural add may be attitudinal, appetite for risk for example, it might be in personality, background, experience, knowledge, and so on, it’s not prescribed.

The value of hiring for cultural add

Let’s first consider the other shortcomings of hiring for cultural fit. It’s an approach that’s more likely to result in potentially valuable employees escaping. Missing out on people that expand and enhance your culture through the way they think, their knowledge or their particular skills. Gaining new ideas, perspectives and feedback from employees should be valued and prioritised. Underlying all of this is building a culture of feedback. Feedback is all important in getting better and promoting change. It’s not necessary to agree with the feedback to benefit from it.

Cultural add in hiring requires an in depth consideration of the existing organisational culture – in and of itself a valuable exercise. Considering what is missing from the current culture and what is valued. Through this interrogation opportunities and blind spots may be uncovered. It’s a means of addressing what’s missing culturally in a proactive and meaningful way.

When hiring for cultural add you’ll need to consider what qualities you value in your people, irrespective of skills and background. It’s a process that might shine a light on what qualities and values already exist, and identify shortcomings to be addressed.

Whilst this post is focussed on hiring, it’s importnat to keep in mind to not just hire for cultural add but reward and promote cultural add. This applies to existing and new staff alike.

How to hire for cultural add

Hiring for cultural add is easier said than done. The process starts with getting clear on what the organisation is looking for, what’s missing culturally and what qualities it values. Typically more preparation is needed up front and the interview process might be more involved.

The job description and advertising must indicate the hiring objectives and the value of culture in this. Be clear that the organisation values cultural diversity. Pre-empt that the candidate will be asked about their thoughts on culture. The interview should then be a safe space in which the candidate feel comfortable to be their authentic selves. Ask the candidate about what culture means to them, and examples of how they’ve contributed to culture in previous employment. Ask them how they think they might contribute to your culture.

It might sound challenging to do all this, but the long term benefits to the organisation are clear. What this process also does is give new employees agency in the office culture. Making it clear they are there to be themselves, to contribute, and permission that they’re not expected to change and fit the pre-existing culture. What might they bring that no-one else offers? (It’s a question for you and for them.)

Final word

It’s unequivocal the value of the cultural add to an organisation. It challenges group think and existing biases, whilst also contributing to change. It must be managed and there needs to be a psychologically safe environment in which the culture develops. A safe culture of feedback is foremost in this consideration. I’m curious about how the profession has a tendency to maintain cultural status quo’s and how that has driven a resistance to change. I foresee that this is a discussion that will come increasingly to the fore as the disruption of the pandemic and the return to the workplace holds culture up to an excoriating light.

Epilogue

The architecture profession is seemingly going through a process of acknowledging a number of its cultural limitations. There’s a homogeneity to the profession that needs to be addressed. I’m curious about how the profession, and before that the universities, are driving cultural fit rather than cultural add across the entirety of the profession.

It’s not just in the hiring process… but that’s a post for next week!


Picture by iStock on Pexels [edited]

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

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