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Your company’s culture is not unique, psychologist Adam Grant says

Also: Stop hiring for “culture fit.” You’re just hurting your business in the long run, Grant says.

Psychologist and author Adam Grant
Psychologist and author Adam Grant
Courtesy Give and Take

Psychologist and management expert Adam Grant has been invited to visit and advise a lot of companies over his career — and over time, he’s noticed a pretty clear theme.

“Almost every company I’ve gone into, what I hear is, ‘Our culture is unique!’” Grant said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “And then I ask, ‘How is it unique?’ and the answers are all the same.”

“I hear, ‘People really believe in our values and they think that we’re a cause, so we’re so passionate about the mission!’” he added. “Great. So is pretty much every other company. I hear, ‘We give employees unusual flexibility,’ ‘We have all sorts of benefits that no other company offers,’ and ‘We live with integrity in ways that no other company does.’ It’s just the same platitudes over and over.”

The potential for companies to remain ignorant of how much they are like their competitors is funny — but it’s also a serious problem, Grant said. When leaders think they are uniquely talented at forging company culture, that belief “closes the door to learning.”

He also railed against another common corporate platitude: Managers who say, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.”

“I do get why leaders say this,” Grant said. “They want people to be constructive, they don’t want them to whine and complain. But I think if you create a culture where people can only speak up when they have a solution, you will never hear about the biggest problems, which are too hard for one person to solve.”

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, Grant also explained the problem with hiring employees based around the idea of “culture fit.” A true believer in the value of data-driven management science, he said that practice leads to a “pretty scary proposition” in the long-term.

“The founders who are passionate about culture fit, their companies are less likely to fail, they’re more likely to IPO,” he said. “But then after that, they grow at slower rates. So once they go public, they have slower growth in annual market cap.”

Startups with a disruptive idea can use “culture fit” to hire a lot of people who all feel passionately about the mission of these potentially world-changing companies, Grant said. But then those people hire even more people who are like them.

“You end up attracting the same kinds of people because culture fit is a proxy for, ‘Are you similar to me? Do I want to hang out with you?’” he said. “So you end up with this nice, homogeneous group of people who fall into groupthink and then it’s easier for them to get disrupted from the outside, and they have trouble innovating and changing.”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • On Too Embarrassed to Ask, also hosted by Kara Swisher, we answer the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara.

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