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Cultural Fit vs. Personality: Which Matters More for Employee Engagement?


Is your company still seeking candidates based on “culture fit”? If so, it may be time to rethink things.

This once widely-adopted practice is falling out of favor, in part because organizations are tackling related issues around diversity and potential discrimination.

But in the midst of these conversations, many companies may be overlooking another equally important reason to stop building teams based largely on like-mindedness.

You need people with different work styles and strengths.

To understand what I mean, consider the conference room brimming with your most outgoing employees—the ones who thrive in social settings and prefer to think out loud instead of preparing in advance. Will they leave the meeting feeling motivated and enthused? Probably. Will there be concrete decisions and action items in their wake? Not likely. Organization and decisions often come from complementary quiet thinkers who prefer to listen, absorb, prepare, and plan.

To be truly unstoppable, you need both types of employee personalities. But if your culture fit is focused heavily on high-energy individuals, you might miss out on the tremendous benefits that more methodical employees can bring to the team.

How can you know if this is a problem at your company? Let’s take a look.

When a well-intentioned focus on culture fit can go wrong

First, consider the advice that’s often given by those who espouse hiring based on culture fit. Employers have often been told to identify “employees’ shared assumptions and norms” and to prioritize “beliefs about behavior.” This process is often summed up in the ubiquitous beer test: If you’d like to have a beer with someone, they’re likely to be a great fit for your team.

Where does that leave the employee who has great ideas at work but doesn’t drink? Or someone who has other commitments after hours, such as recreational sports and family?

Or, even more importantly, what happens when someone doesn’t pass the beer test—or simply exhibits behaviors that are in contrast to your prescribed norms? Think of it like a puzzle: If every piece has the same shape, it’d be impossible to put them together.

Patty McCord, Netflix’s former chief talent officer, summed up this issue beautifully in her recent tale of two job candidates. The first was a programmer named Anthony:

“Making great hires is about recognizing great matches—and often they’re not what you’d expect. Take Anthony Park. On paper he wasn’t a slam dunk for a Silicon Valley company. He was working at an Arizona bank, where he was a “programmer,” not a “software developer.” And he was a pretty buttoned-up guy. We called Anthony because in his spare time he’d created a Netflix-enhancing app, which he had posted on his website… I did wonder how he’d fit in with the high-powered team he was joining; I hoped it wouldn’t burn him out.

A few months later I sat in on a meeting of his team. Everyone was arguing until Anthony suddenly said, ‘Can I speak now?’ The room went silent, because Anthony didn’t say much, but when he did speak, it was something really smart—something that would make us all wonder, ‘Damn it, why didn’t I think of that?’ Now Anthony is a vice president. He’s proof that organizations can adapt to many people’s styles.”

The second was a tech team manager named Christian. McCord didn’t think to recruit him until she had tried (and failed) to hire away several programmers from his group at AOL. When they all turned down the job offers because they “couldn’t bear the thought of leaving” their amazing, communicative boss, McCord had Christian brought in for interviews:

“Christian wasn’t what I’d expected. He had a thick German accent, and he stuttered. This was the great communicator? On top of that, he was clearly nervous. Our conversation was painful for him and for me. But when I asked him to explain, in simple terms, the technical work he was doing, he was transformed. He still stuttered, but he gave me a riveting explanation, and I realized, ‘That’s it! He’s great at making really complicated things understandable.’ We hired him, and he’s been an amazing team builder.”

Neither employee was what McCord would have expected or pursued. Both ended up being among the most engaged and innovative individuals to contribute to the Netflix culture.

Bottom line: When the focus is on finding employees who all think and act the same, you risk missing out on the benefits of a truly engaged workforce with personalities that complement one another.

Which is why it’s so important to be attuned to the different ways your people engage with work.

Why you need a mix of personalities for maximum engagement

As a leader, it’s important to be aware of the ways different personalities and work styles can help increase engagement.

For instance, one study found that having a manager with extroverted tendencies—being bold, assertive, talkative, and energetic—can be a big advantage when the team consists of more introverted employees. In their analysis of 57 pizza delivery locations, researchers found the stores with this mix of personalities to be 16 percent more profitable. Interestingly, the opposite was true when this same type of manager was leading a team of equally extroverted employees:

“Extroverted leadership was an advantage with passive groups, but a disadvantage with proactive groups,” behavioral scientist Francesca Gino said of the study.

On the other side of the spectrum, teams of proactive employees have been found to perform well when they’re led by introverted managers. When these quiet leaders take the things they’re naturally good at—deep thinking, empathy, and the ability to listen—they can have a big impact on employee engagement and drive real change within an organization.

Susan Cain, a leading expert on introversion, summed it up this way:

“Introverted leaders… when they are managing proactive employees, are much more likely to let those employees run with their ideas.”

In other words, having the right mix is key.

How to build employee engagement around different personalities

If you measure employee engagement and experience low drivers in areas such as shared values or friendship, it could be a sign that it’s time to evaluate the individual needs of employees. That’s why feedback is so important: It helps you get at the heart of what different employees need to create and collaborate effectively.

The next time you find yourself wondering how employees are “fitting in,” ask instead what personality drivers may be at play—and what more you can provide to help them become as productive, creative and, ultimately, engaged as possible.

Wondering what else may be going on beneath the surface of your workforce? Personality-driven work styles and preferences are just one piece of the employee engagement puzzle. Tenures and experience levels often play an equally important role. For more details, check out Engaging a Multigenerational Workforce.

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