In-breeding on the job

charlie-green-4UP9eSHz8tQ-unsplashI came within a whisker of committing an indiscretion this week.

I saw a bandy-legged, thickset, jowly man who so resembled the British bulldog he was walking that I nearly asked him if I could take a picture.

There is research evidence that people tend to end up with dogs that look like them. If the broad features of a dog's face look something like our own, then, all else being equal, that breed should arouse more of a warm and familiar feeling in us. Even more, research shows that we expect some similarity – strangers match 60%-70% of dog owner pairs correctly.

I’m not making this stuff up: you can check the studies here, here, or here.

Not just your choice of hound either. In psychology the similarity hypothesis suggests that we tend to be drawn towards those who are similar to ourselves. Similarities can be shared attitudes and values, as well as political opinions, cultural background, or even minute details like posture.

Our preference for people who share features with us (schooling, skin colour, gender, accent and so on) explains why your basic interview is a very poor way of choosing candidates. In a rigorous analysis of over 500 different jobs to compare information about applicants with performance they subsequently achieved on the job standard interviews accounted for only 8% of the variability in future performance. Like it or not, interviews are full of bias, especially when compared to modern and objective measures of personality, interests and thinking.

We might wonder if the similarity effect works with entire organisations as well. Are the people drawn to work in advertising different from public servants? And are the public servants who work for (say) the Treasury more similar to each other than to the people working at the Department of Conservation? Again, evidence confirms that firms will replicate themselves – even if that is unconscious.

The organisational psychologist Ben Schneider proposed three mechanisms that cause organisations to grow more similar over time: when people think they will fit the organisation they seek to join it; when organisations think people will fit it they choose them; and when people no longer fit the organization they leave.

There have been a number of studies which show this effect to be broadly true. Now a recent investigation shows that indeed, as time passes organisations accumulate more people who fit the culture, and that a company tends to grow psychologically similar. If this were the animal kingdom we would say that birds of a feather flock, fly and stay together.


Here in NZ we’ve studied this effect between the public service and private enterprise. We showed reliable differences between the values and personalities of senior executives from the private sector compared to the public sector: public service executives show greater conservatism and lower scores on recognition, power, and commercial values.

The similarity effect has even been found when looking at regional differences in countries – California and the sunny southwest of America really is more chillaxed than the rest and attracts more of those kinds of people.

Of course you say – organisations want people who fit the culture, who fit in, who get us. We are after all pack animals, just like dogs.

On the plus side, similarity helps build camaraderie and efficiency – which is why militaries spend so much effort training and acculturating soldiers. When language, norms and are unconsciously shared then day-to-day interactions and transactions flow more easily. 

Culture fit is a deeply problematic practice however.

If you or your organisation hires for ‘culture fit’ then you are part of the system that means there are more CEOs called John in the S&P 500 than women. In England it’s not the John problem but the Peter problem. Here in NZ the David’s, Peter’s, Chris’s and Simon’s all outnumber women 2:1, and there are still four times as many NZ CEOs called John than women.


Think ambition and talent alone determine who gets through your hiring door?

Think again. In the same way pooch breeders inbred bulldogs so they can no longer deliver their own big-headed pups, hiring too many of the same kinds of people leads to myopic, inbred firms who like what they see in the mirror too much.


Culture add

Instead of “culture fit” think instead of what my colleague Charles Handler termed “culture add”.  Here’s an example. Until the 1980’s orchestras around the world had fewer than 10% of women players. Obviously, that is because women are inferior to men musically.

No wait.

Around 1980 some US orchestras moved to conducting auditions from face to face to having the player sit behind a screen, so that only the playing was evaluated and not the player.

Lo and behold, the proportion of women players has since shifted to be close to 50:50 today.

Some companies are doing the modern equivalent by redacting applicant names, pictures and even universities, and replacing interviews with skills tests as way of getting the best candidate, instead of the candidate everyone liked at interview.

And while demographic diversity justifiably gets a lot of attention there is evidence that cognitive or deep diversity - that is, diversity in how people feel, think, and act - has significant benefits for organisations, particularly if it is managed well.

This type of psychological diversity overlaps with the demographic diversity - but the overlap is often much smaller than we think. The individual differences between any two people are much more prominent than group differences between any two ethnicities.

So we encourage firms to:

  • understand the psychological profile of all their people
  • train interviewers in unconscious bias and use interviews sparingly
  • inject personality and ability tests into the process instead
  • hire for ‘positive deviance’ more than culture fit

I had my own run in with the canine similarity effect recently. I would happily tell you that small, yappy dogs are not worth having and would never get a place on my team. I’m a mid-sized dog person: I’ve had a couple of Irish Wheaten terriers and they are brilliant dogs – friendly, handsome and energetic (maybe a tad thick, but Buster is not like me in that). Until circumstances meant I’ve been living with a wee Cavoodle for the past year. And to expose my unconscious bias she is not only affectionate, keen and playful but she is a stone-cold rabbit-killer. I love her to bits.


Photo credits thanks to: Unsplash.com Charlie Green and Haseeb Jamil