“Cultural Fit” and the Problem of Mandatory Socializing

“You complete me.”

No one likes working with people who are “different” from them.

If I had to work with someone who thought it was okay to harass people based on their clothing for example, then I probably wouldn’t want to work with them. If someone had very different life experiences as me I wouldn’t refuse to work with them but I’d likely be justified in feeling some measure of apprehension of how well it’d go.

This is where a skill called “compartmentalization” come into play.

Basically, you say, “Okay, this trait of this person is undesirable for X reason and Y reason. But they have so many other traits of them that are desirable that I can ignore this former section and still work with them.”

The word “ignore” here shouldn’t be taken literally, It just means that you recognize that a person has certain qualities you don’t like but they aren’t deal-breakers. But even things that aren’t deal-breakers might worth discussing as issues even if they’re less important. This is especially true since multiple small issues can be a big deal over time.

Unfortunately if you’re in such a position of power that your traits are the only traits that should matter even when it comes to other folks lives, then you may just be the boss. And you also may be a big fan of the idea called “cultural fit”.

Cultural fit is an obnoxiously nebulous idea like most corporate speak. It refers to the sets of traits that best reflect what a given company may want from their subordinates. As you might imagine this quickly becomes a game of bosses picking their favorites more based on background interests than actual skills.

There’s some decent criticism of cultural fit from the NY Times and Forbes of all places which highlight the trend towards nebulousness with “cultural fit”.

For example, writing for the NYT Lauren A. Rivera says,

It has shifted from systematic analysis of who will thrive in a given workplace to snap judgments by managers about who they’d rather hang out with. In the process, fit has become a catchall used to justify hiring people who are similar to decision makers and rejecting people who are not.

Crucially, though, for these gatekeepers, fit was not about a match with organizational values. It was about personal fit. In these time- and team-intensive jobs, professionals at all levels of seniority reported wanting to hire people with whom they enjoyed hanging out and could foresee developing close relationships with. Fit was different from the ability to get along with clients.

Fundamentally, it was about interviewers’ personal enjoyment and fun. Many, like one manager at a consulting firm, believed that “when it’s done right, work is play.”

This understandable because of course people want to dress up work and pretend like it’s play. Like it’s something friends do together and like everyone in the company just gets along. But this underhanded type of play has nothing to do with play as I understand it, a type of voluntary interaction that is self-directed in its intentions and goals.

People’s abilities to engage with work in voluntary and creative ways is constantly stifled by these same processes, language games and hierarchies. All of which impede rationality, good decision making ability and collaboration itself. It’s completely understandable that the bosses would want someone they can sit around and shoot the shit about.

But if they really want to do that then they probably wouldn’t be bosses.

How many people grow up wanting to be CEOs because their main goal is facilitating idle chit-chat between workers and themselves? I doubt there are many and I doubt there are even fewer who would even think that it’s good for the workplace environment. Unsurprisingly, giving your workers more freedom to talk amongst themselves actually boosts productivity and happiness within firms according to Alex Pentland, a Toshiba Professor of Media, Arts, and Sciences at MIT.

Notably, his advocacy of idle chit-chat comes with the intention of aiding capitalist enterprises while my advocacy of it is to help undermine them. By constantly building and pushing for new policies among workers and within the firm to increase the freedoms they have. And then by showing that these freedoms not only help the company but help them I think they can start pushing for more radical measures given time and success.

What I think we should focus on when trying to get any sort of reform is the eventual end of work, a sort of revolutionary gradualism. In the long-run it’s simply not very important if we get a few more minutes talking by the water cooler about the latest development in sports or how our families are doing. At the same time I don’t deny that these are improvements but if we want to not only keep these improvements but do even better we need more radical intentions.

Part of this radicalization comes from a re-framing of these issues.

Instead of seeing slacking, socializing or any other positive development within the workplace to be about the workplace we should try to frame it as an issue of freedom and how best to constantly maximize freedom. For instance, I think giving workers more time to themselves to work on their own self-directed projects and conversations are undeniably good things. But we shouldn’t celebrate these advancements for the sake of productivity but rather for the sake of freedom.

It’s far more important for individuals to be empowered than to be productive. If you have someone who is constantly restricted and hampered by individuals who claim they are superior than you’ll undoubtedly affect their productivity down the line. But if you have someone who can give their own sense of freedom to themselves without needs to rely on the “good graces” or “progressive” ideas of their bosses, then it becomes much genuinely empowering.

Indeed, it becomes an actual threat to the existing order in some way. The fact that capitalists and the larger business world can treat something as mildly radical as Semco as “insane” means that pushing even further will make them feel further threatened and perhaps for good reason. The point is that we’re heading in good directions within the workplace in some areas but these criticisms of old practices and pushing of new practices aren’t quite going far enough.

It’s not even totally clear that the kind of socialization that workplaces sometimes push for helps to begin with.

Take the phenomenon of “forced socialization” for example (see here for another critique):

The idea of a harmonious workplace where staffers commune over hipster tacos and microbrews sounds good in theory.

But the expectation that employees treat workplace bonding as an extracurricular activity turns out to be a recipe for homogenous spaces—with workers from marginalized communities on the losing end. For working parents and people with limited disposable income, the cost of mandatory socializing can be prohibitive.

The notion that if we all just get along that the institution within will remain or become much consistently good is a fairly liberal idea. I’ve gone on and on about why the liberal notion of institutions don’t work but for those unfamiliar the basic point is that incentive structures don’t necessarily get changed by aesthetic differences.

I’m trying to be as charitable as possible and not overly-dismissive but that’s one of the best short-hand ways I can think of expressing it. Changing the color of a curtain doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a curtain and changing a low-level policy of a workplace doesn’t change the fact that it’s a capitalist firm controlled by capitalists, not workers.

What I’m getting at here is that institutional and structural change is fundamentally more important than simply changing how many lunches you get in a given day. Or whether you can spend 20 minutes of every hour doing something that is self-directed and so on. These policies are, once again, capitalism giving the workers something to pick off from a system that tends to benefit the bosses and government over them.

One of the ways that this process works is by giving the less powerful certain crumbs they need to survive. This is why you see people (understandably) fighting so hard for things like food stamps, medicare, state-based insurance, etc The state blocks out competition and so do the corporations which means that when they decide to stop giving us the valuable few “free” perks, people rightly resist because they feel their lives are on the line.

And sometimes they’re not that far off in their estimation.

But again, the long-term strategy isn’t to engage with the political process and try to make sure the politicians and bosses keep giving us the crumbs we want (and sometimes need!) so badly. To borrow a ubiquitous metaphor among radicals, we have to seize the whole bakery instead of simply demanding breadcrumbs.


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2 thoughts on ““Cultural Fit” and the Problem of Mandatory Socializing

  1. “When once they stalked deer, or crouched shivering in the mud for the flight of ducks to alight, or risked their lives in the crags after goats, or closed in with shouts upon a wild boar at bay- that was not work, though often the breath came hard and the limbs were heavy. When the women bore and nursed children, or wandered in the woods for berries and mushrooms, or tended fire at the entrance of the rock shelter- That was not work either.
    So also, when they sang and danced and made love, that was not play. By the singing and the dancing the spirits of forest and water might be placated- a serious matter, though still one might enjoy the song and the dance. And as for the making of love, by that- and by the favor of the gods- the tribe was maintained.
    So in the first years work and play mingled always, and there were not even words for one against the other.
    But centuries flowed by and then more of them, and many things changed. Man invented civilization and was inordinately proud of it. But in no way did civilization change life than to sharpen the line between work and play, and at last that division had came to be more important than the old one between sleeping and waking. Sleep came to be thought a kind of relaxation, and “sleeping on the job” a heinous sin. The turning out of the light and the ringing of the alarm were not so much the symbols of man’s dual life as were the punching of the time clock and the blowing of the whistle. Men marched on picket lines and threw bricks and exploded dynamite to shift an hour from one classification to the other, and other men fought equally hard to prevent them. And always work became more laborious and odious, and play grew more artificial and febrile.”

    Excerpt of ‘Earth Abides’ by George R. Stewart (1949)

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