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Winning at Office Politics: The Challenge Of Culture Fit

How to get ahead when your company’s not a good fit

office politics 2In the first of our two part series on Winning at Office Politics, we discussed strategies for dealing with workplace cliques. Now we turn our attention toward culture fit, or lack of it. If you’re not one of the boss’s favorites or you’re the odd one out for any number of reasons—from gender to race to work style—what do you do? And how do you know if it might be time to call it quits?

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal suggests that the best way to avoid cultural mis-hires is to hire the right people in the first place. Jim Patton, founder of Sensible Hiring, agrees: “We need to change the way people are hired,” says Patton. “Cultural misfit is a direct result of the completely wrong way companies go about hiring people.”

That makes sense from a management perspective, but if you’re the employee who has already landed in a cultural mismatch, you’ll need some strategies to help you handle it.

Make the Distinction

While cultural fit is critical to an employee’s success, it’s not always clear what constitutes a poor fit. “Discomfort at the office is sometimes mistaken as a ‘bad cultural fit,’” says Marcia LaReau, founder and president of Forward Motion Careers. “Getting to the real source of the issue is essential to determining whether a person should leave—voluntarily or otherwise.”

Stephen Balzac, president of management consulting firm 7 Steps Ahead and author of the forthcoming book Organizational Psychology for Managers, offers some guidance on how to make this critical distinction. “It’s extremely important to distinguish cultural mismatch from poor orientation on the part of the company and the normal process of getting used to a new environment,” says Balzac. “Real cultural mismatch occurs when you find that your values and the underlying values of the company simply do not agree.”

Balzac notes that depending on the degree to which our existing values, habits, and routines do not fit with those around us, we may feel as if we don’t fit the company culture, or the culture doesn’t fit us. “The trick at this point is to determine whether the problem is habits and routines or a fundamental clash of values,” says Balzac. “Most of the time, it’s not obvious.”

To try to tease out which is which, Balzac recommends starting by changing one habit or routine you have for getting work done—drop your usual method, and instead ask a colleague to teach you how it’s done in the company, and do it that way. “Once you’ve successfully adopted one of the new routines, adopt another,” says Balzac. “As you start to act more like the other members of the culture, you may notice that you are fitting in. People will treat you as part of the group, and you’ll be feeling increasingly comfortable with the goals of the company and how it does business. In this case, your discomfort stemmed from habits and routines, and learning the new culture is what you needed to do.”

Play Both Sides

Another distinction worth making is the difference between what an employee believes to constitute a good cultural fit, and what the company believes is important. LaReau, who is a former HR director, notes that most employees equate cultural fit with their personal degree of comfort and job satisfaction. HR professionals, on the other hand, are more likely to view fit as relating to an employee’s efficiency and contribution to business profitability.

“When an employee and their management can document value in terms of productivity, work efficiency, and bottom-line contribution to the generation of revenue—that’s cultural fit from an HR business perspective,” says LaReau. “From the employee’s perspective, there should be a ‘chemistry’ with the team; a focus on solutions that are important to the business as articulated from the top down.”

LaReau emphasizes that both of these perspectives are important for a good fit. “Half the job is having the skills to bring the intended/needed value and the flexibility to move with the flow to keep up with change,” says LaReau. “The other 50 percent is making people comfortable.”

Beat the Boss Blues

One of the most uncomfortable struggles that you can have as an employee is being on the outs with your boss. If you find that you’re clearly not one of the boss’s favorites, it can lead to a major mismatch and discomfort on both sides.

Greg Miliates has experienced this painful situation firsthand. Now a self-employed consultant, Miliates previously worked in a company where he knew that he was definitely not the boss’s favorite—but ironically, he says it was one of the best things that ever happened to him.

“The stress and frustration of having a very tense relationship with my boss was extremely difficult, but I found that I could use that negative energy to motivate myself and create a better situation instead of simply complaining and feeling like a victim,” says Miliates. “Being passive leads to further frustration, stress, and even depression. In contrast, realizing that you have control is incredibly empowering—whether you choose to start a business, find a new job, or make a lateral move within your current company.”

Why do people fall out of favor with their boss? Kathi Elster, co-author of Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal and Working for You Isn’t Working for Me: How to Get Ahead When Your Boss Holds You Back, suggests that there could be several reasons:

  • You just don’t fit in the culture—you may be too aggressive, or think out of the box
  • You make your boss jealous because you are so good—you’ve become a threat
  • You accidentally said or did something that your boss didn’t like, and now he/she holds a grudge

How can you break free from this relationship? Elster suggests that you have a few options to explore before you pick up and quit. You could try to work it out with your boss—though it may take some sucking up, it might be effective. You could also try to be productive and on point while networking with other departments to see if there is an opening in another part of the company. But if all else fails, according to Elster, you might have to realize that you are who you are and this is just not a good fit.

Is It Time?

Recognizing a poor cultural fit is only half the battle—knowing what to do about it is the other half. Is a less-than-ideal fit ever a reason to seek new opportunities? Many career experts say yes. Here are some situations in which you might want to consider other options:

  • Feeling unhappy. Consultant John Paul Engel of Knowledge Capital Consulting says that the time to leave is when you are truly unhappy. “If you go to work unhappy for a week, find something else to do with your life,” says Engel. “The worst thing is people coming in unhappy bringing everyone else down with them. You should enjoy your work.”
  • Conversation stalemate. In the case of not connecting well with your boss, Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, LLC, suggests trying to have a conversation with your manager before throwing in the towel. “It is possible the manager is completely unaware of your situation,” says Steere. “If so, the manager may move quickly to help you feel more included.” However, Steere adds that if you continue to feel out-of-the-loop or excluded even after talking with your manager, it may be time to find a new job.
  • Red flags. “Sometimes entire teams are disenfranchised by changing business priorities,” says LaReau. “The whole team gets a sense that they are not aligned with the business goals: new projects are not coming their way; busy work or closing work are offered. The team is not included in new developments, may not be invited to important meetings—they find themselves on the sidelines. Ifany of these happen, it’s a bad fit and time to leave.”
  • Values mismatch. Balzac notes that if you try changing your habits and routines to try to better fit the culture and still feel a strong sense of disconnect, you may be in trouble. “If the company’s vision is something you deeply believe in and you believe that the company is committed to that vision, odds are pretty good that your discomfort is stemming from some mismatch between what you are doing (or what you see the company doing) and that vision,” says Balzac. “Talk to more senior people and see if you can connect the dots between where you are and where the company claims it’s going. If the dots don’t connect, don’t stay.”
  • Problems despite changes. If you’ve tried to make adjustments to your work style to fit the company culture yet find the new ways of behaving so unpleasant or uncomfortable that you can’t stomach them, you may need to say goodbye. “Assuming you’ve made an honest effort to adapt, don’t torture yourself,” says Balzac. “Something isn’t right and there’s no reason to stick around.”
  • Feeling isolated and unproductive. Not everyone who doesn’t fit in has problems at work—in fact, it can be just the opposite. “Sometimes not fitting in with the norms can be a good thing if it allows you to operate in the grey space where most of your more accepted colleagues cannot or will not go,” says Laurence J. Stybel, president of Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire. Stybel emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between being isolated and productive versus isolated and unproductive. “You may be isolated within your team, but you are productive and you are getting visibility outside the organization,” says Stybel. “Good things will happen. Stay the course. But if you are isolated and unproductive or invisible beyond the walls of the team, then you do have to look elsewhere.”

About Robin Madell

Robin Madell has spent over two decades as a corporate writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, health, finance, technology, and public-interest issues. She is a contributing writer to U.S. News & World Report and serves as a copywriter, speechwriter, and ghostwriter for executives and entrepreneurs across diverse industries. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association in New York and San Francisco. Robin is the author of Surviving Your Thirties: Americans Talk About Life After 30 and co-author of The Strong Principles: Career Success.


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