How to Not Fall into the Culture Fit Trap
I call culture fit a trap because it turns out that for years and years and years we've thought of this idea of fitting a culture as good, when it turns out it's actually sneakily kind of evil. It's also not necessary to solve big problems, so to point that out I want to tell a couple of stories. The first is maybe one of my favorite stories in history. It's about a couple of guys who are very complicated fellows, complicated is the nice way of putting it. The first complicated fellow is a man named Andrew Jackson and when I say complicated I mean racist and a jerk and why did he ever become president? Andrew Jackson was the only guy that they could call during a crucial moment when the United States almost didn't become the United States. So in American History class, they teach us about the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War and World War Two, they kind of glance over the War of 1812. What happened in the War of 1812 is a really interesting lesson in what we're talking about about ...
diversity and unity and teamwork. War of 1812, the very brief story is that Britain decided that they wanted to pay themselves back for some of their losses in the Revolutionary War, which happened a couple of decades before. And so they started harassing ships in international waters, so American ships were carrying goods, the British were basically taking those goods, and anyone with a British accent they would conscript into the British Navy. And they'd also been fighting Napoleon and they needed money, but there's also this weird international law which was that you were allowed to pirate anybody's boat as long as your country was at war with them. And as long as you were in international waters. Strange thing, but Britain started doing this and so America got mad, and Thomas Jefferson made this kind of boneheaded move where his reaction to this was to ban all imports and exports. He's like, well they can't get our boats if they don't have any exports. And this ruined the economy. So the economy was bad, and then basically to save money he got rid of the military and said we'll just hire private contractors if we ever need the military, and that was around the time that the English invaded. So they sacked all these cities on the east coast and basically realized that they had the opportunity to take America back. There was one city left standing in the way of these plans. Basically they wanted to, they were taking over all these cities on the east coast, they wanted to sail up the Mississippi River and have a ground invasion and kind of push the Americans into the ocean. There was one city left behind stopping this plan, and it was New Orleans, which was at the time having a big party, which they have not stopped ever since. And they were having this party because unlike every other city, they somehow magically had a lot of imports. But those imports, you know of course, were illegal. They were coming from a group of pirate brothers named the brothers Lafitte. So Jean Lafitte, who was kind of the cocky and sexy one, he was kind of the public relations face of this group, there's Pierre Lafitte who ran the blacksmith shop where goods magically appeared, and there was Dominique Youx who was out in the Caribbean pirating everyone. And they sailed under letters of mark from Cartagena which was at war with everyone, so they were legally allowed to pirate, they just couldn't import, so they had to do that sneakily. So these pirates were feeding New Orleans with rum and all sorts of fun stuff, and the British came to them and said hey, we want to surprise attack New Orleans and we'll give you two million dollars if you guide us through this swamp so we can surprise attack. Now the pirates, because they were pirates said yeah, and then they went and told the government of New Orleans that this was gonna happen. Which is pretty cool of them because the federal government was not down with the pirates, New Orleans was, but this is pretty cool of them. So government freaks out and they call the only person around that they can possibly have come defend the city, the only general in the vicinity, it's this guy named Andrew Jackson who was kind of a known asshole, is the only guy around. So he shows up to the city and takes stock of the army that they have to defend against the British. Now the pirates have found out that the British have 20,000 soldiers and the largest armada ever assembled at see, this enormous army. And Andrew Jackson finds out that all they have in the city is a contingent of 200 lawyers and whores who have signed up to defend the city. And so he brings a couple thousand riflemen, hunters from Tennessee with him, and then there's a battalion of a couple hundred free slaves, there's a group of 82 Choctaw warriors. He gets all of them together so they have some 3,000 people against 20,000 soldiers. And around this time a lawyer shows up to Jackson's house or his quarters and says you know, there's one other group that can help you out in this war. And he says who? And he says well the pirate brothers Lafitte. And he says no way, I hate pirates, we're not working with criminals. And he says well, they have a lot of cannons. And he says okay. And so Jean Lafitte becomes the co-strategist of this defense force, completely outmatched eight to one odds against the British. And the British realize that the pirates are not helping them out, they have to invade by land because the twisting currents of the Mississippi doesn't let them get their boats by, so they do this land invasion and this outmatched army eight to one ends up destroying the British Army with 10 to one casualties. So it's basically like an 80 to one disparity between the damage that the Americans do and the damage that the British do. It becomes one of the greatest battles in history of an underdog army of misfits pulling off the impossible. What happened in this story is remarkable, and I write about it at length in Dream Team, so you should definitely read the whole version of the story, but the short version of the story is, these groups of people who did not really, they'd never fought before with each other, they did not get along. You know, the American Indians, the Choctaw braves were enemies of these Tennessee hunters, they'd been having skirmishes for a long time. The Tennesseeans were hardly on the right side of history on that one, but they put aside their differences to work together. The Choctaw's taught the Tennessee hunters how to do guerrilla warfare. They taught them how to fight like Indian skirmishes. And the freed slaves, the freed men of color, they worked side by side with the landowners and the lawyers of New Orleans who, they ostensibly had every reason to not like each other. They worked side by side to build fortifications and then they shot their guns side by side with each other, put aside their differences, which was pretty cool. And the pirates who were enemies of the state who Jackson openly did not like, he openly did not like any of these groups by the way. He was a slave owner he had murdered American Indians, somehow this superordinate goal of saving the city, saving the country, allowed them all to come together. But the reason they won wasn't just their passion for saving the city and saving the country, it was because they combined their different heuristics and perspectives. So the Choctaw braves and the Tennessee hunters teamed up to do this guerrilla warfare that harassed the British sentries and creates this huge ruckus. The pirates took their cannons and floated a boat down the river and just harassed the army with the cannons, and all of this added up to this incredible victory. The British went home and the war was over and they threw a party and are still partying. And Jean Lafitte went from stealing boats to stealing hearts. He became this sort of man of town, man about town, and I love this story not just 'cause it's entertaining and the details are really fun, but because it's a classic example of the rag tag group of misfits overcoming the odds. This is what Hollywood has shown us over and over and over again, and the most inspiring kind of story we can have. And we see it over and over again in history. But the question becomes, how do you unify this kind of group? And on the face of it, this superordinate goal of saving the city, yes, that got them to come together. But that's not the whole part of the equation. So this brings me to the other army, the British Army. They were incredibly unified, they marched in the single file, well not single file, but in these rows and rows, they had way better equipment, way better training, they should have, even with losing lots of casualties, they should have just run over this other army. But they didn't. And in a lot of discussions that we have around unity and teamwork, we tend to talk about shared values, values that you have in common and unity being an advantage. Well it turns out that for the British this was an incredible disadvantage. The worst part of the battle is this example of the 93rd regiment of Scots. During this battle, they were all, this one regiment were all required to be over six feet tall, they were from Scotland, they were kind of young boys. They were promised land and riches if they went and fought this glorious battle. They were the most strict at adhering to the values of the British Army, which basically amounted to extreme discipline and obedience no matter what. To the point that if you received an order, you did only that order until you got another order. So one thing that happened that was really not cool is their commanding officer gave them an order to halt at one point in the battle. And then the commanding officer was shot and so they halted and so they stayed there, and for several minutes just got shot to pieces. Something like 800 of them died because no one would do the obvious thing to do which was not just sit there. Until finally a commanding officer from another regiment managed to get over there and say retreat. And you think about how ridiculous that sounds, that who would do that when your lives are at stake? And yet so often in our teamwork and our working together, we make those kinds of mistakes, those mistakes are not life and death, but we make those kinds of moves where the right thing to do is not the thing that aligns with the unified thing to do, and so we make the wrong choice. Turns out, this actually comes from, the reason we do this in business so often, comes from real psychology research that we've gotten wrong. So in the 1970s, they did a series of studies where they basically tried to determine what makes people the happiest at work. And what they found is that people universally are more happy at work when they work with people who have similar personalities as them. Which makes sense, right? You want to work with your friends, you share a lot in common, that's great. What we conflated with that research is that being happy at work means that you will be good at work, that you will be productive at work, that you'll be innovative or creative at work, and it turns out that those things are not only not correlated, they can often be inversely correlated. Being too happy, to unified, too in line, actually doesn't leave room for creativity. It doesn't leave much room for saying hey, there's a waterfall that we're about to go over, or hey, maybe we shouldn't sit here and be shot. But we took this research from the 1970s and we conflated it with productivity. And then in the 90s, the business world started getting obsessed with this idea of cult like cultures. It comes from a book called Built to Last where basically they looked at companies that were really incredible companies and compared them to companies that were kind of the losers in those same industries. And said what are these companies that are incredible have in common that these companies that suck don't? And there's a whole list of things, some of which are pretty valid, and one of which was like cult like cultures. There's a whole bunch of things that were wrong with this study, and sort of falls victim to fallacies that were around, they're picking the ones that won and they're kind of finding the pattern in that rather than trying to disprove the pattern and they're not looking at the ones that lost and seeing if they have these same things. There's a whole bunch of kind of survivorship bias in this. But basically they said that companies that have cult-like cultures that are built around this idea that you must fit in in order to do your best work, in order to belong, if you don't fit in, then you should leave the culture, leave the company. Those companies have happier employees, they have more motivated people who will do anything for the cause. But underneath cult-like cultures are all these sub-bullets, some of which are good, some of which are not. If you think about a real cult, cults are built around a personality, around a leader that you see as infallible that can do no wrong. And we all know that no one is like that, right? There's, yeah, I can't think of one person that's alive today that would be good advice to think that they could do no wrong, right? Inside of the cult-like cultures was this idea of core values and strong core values, and we'll get back to that in a little bit. It turns out that follow-up research to Built to Last shows that cult-like cultures are diametrically opposed to cultures of innovation. So basically what you have, and these are studies that came out of Berkeley basically showing that not only did these companies in Built to Last, half of them went on to fail, went on to really flop or really suck, but a lot of what made that happen is because of the cult-like cultures themselves. So it's sort of like you have this. Our mountain range. You have the groups of people who are here on the mountain and they say get on board or you don't belong here, that's what cult-like culture is. Or this is who we are and how we do things. And they have someone who's adding that cognitive diversity, this is the opposite of open-mindedness. And that person is saying but I think we should look at this, this is that person in the 93rd regiment of Scots who's like, hey maybe we should retreat. But if your culture doesn't allow for that, then that's a problem. So the teammate, talking about how teams are made of people, the teammate that can, that we need the most is what I call the cognitively additive teammate. It's the teammate that thinks different and that fully engages. This is opposite of the cult thing which is the teammate that fully follows and thinks the same. And yet so much, if you think about our advice that we give on what it means to be a great leader or a great follower, a great team member, is about following the leader and doing what they say and thinking the same and becoming more like the leader. If I'm a leader I don't want people to become more like me, I want them to push me, to think different than me. I want them to help me become better, not just be the same.