Dealing with Cultural Misfits

by Jeff Backal & Merrick Rosenbergdealing with cultural misfits blog

They’re productive. They meet their goals. They’ve been around for a long time. And, although they don’t model your organizational values, you keep them around. They’re the cultural misfits and most organizations have them.

In order for a company to have a cultural misfit, the organization must have clearly defined values that describe behaviors that will create the desired work environment. If you work for a large corporation, you most likely have a clearly defined mission, vision, and values. Examples of values are Customer Focus, Excellence, Integrity, Quality, Respect, and Teamwork. 

You can see these words listed as values and proudly displayed in your lobby. You can find them in your employee handbook. The public can view them on your website and maybe even in your annual report. Your organization proudly announces what you value, or at least what your senior managers say you value.

And yet, organizations do a poor job of holding people accountable for “living the values.” While some organizations include the values in the performance appraisal process, the lack of adherence to the values is rarely grounds for dismissal, especially if the individual is meeting his/her objectives.

In an American Management Association study found that 86% of company surveys have formally stated values. And yet, fifty-nine percent of people reported that failure to adhere to corporate values has a consequence. 

The impact of not enforcing the values is tremendous. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that people generally do not leave companies for money. They leave because of the work environment, their coworkers, and their manager. By allowing misfit behaviors, organizations are ultimately creating an unfriendly work environment for those who buy into and demonstrate the corporate values.

Managers must take responsibility for not only modeling the values, but also for enforcing desired behaviors and rewarding those who exhibit them. Managers must accept that:

- Telling people that their behaviors are inappropriate is uncomfortable, but necessary.

- Behavior that is rewarded tends to be repeated. Therefore, managers must praise and reward those who exemplify the corporate values.

- Behavior that is tolerated, persists. Negative behavior that is exhibited without consequence will become a pattern and must be addressed.

- You cannot expect improvements in performance with any greater degree than the frequency in which feedback is given. Coaching is key to redirecting misfit behaviors.

- Holding people accountable for their behaviors and performance builds morale.

- What get measured, gets done. Values must be identified in the performance management system and there must be clear consequences for not exhibiting the values. Beyond stating the consequences, they must be imposed when necessary.

It's important to recognize that individuals are not misfits, their behaviors are. This means that if you target behaviors that do not align with your culture, you may be able to retain these valuable employees who may be meeting or even exceeding their goals. But if they do not fit into your culture, they are hurting your company more than they are helping. You don’t want to lose them because they clearly add value. But you owe them the courtesy of investing in helping them to change behaviors that allow them to be a better fit. Perhaps they need team building, coaching from their manager or an external coach. Maybe they just need training on specific skills related to areas such as communication, conflict management, or their overall leadership style. 

Given the opportunity, people can change their behaviors so that they are aligned with the stated values. But as Jim Collins said in Good to Great, “You have to get the wrong people off the bus, the right people on the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”

Sometimes cultural misfits need to find a new bus in which their behaviors are a better match...and sometimes they are savable. It all depends on how you deal with them.