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Building an innovation culture to attract and retain top talent

Caroline Gosling , Rubica Change & Analytics
13 May, 2019
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Culture is the character of the organisation

When it comes to hiring and keeping great people, it has been proven that a better cultural ‘fit’ at work results in higher levels of job satisfaction, performance and a willingness to stay. (Ref: Kristof-Brown et al. Personnel Psychology 2005). 

Consistently finding people who are a good cultural fit i.e. they share the same values and norms as most of their colleagues, begins with an appreciation that organisational culture is not just the bits we see or consciously think about. The real opportunities sit beneath the waterline, exerting huge influence on whether a new hire will sink or swim.

Layers of culture

If an organisation has spent time defining their culture, it should have a set of organisational values and ‘ideal’ behaviours that bring these to life. The thinking being that if everyone in the organisation behaves in a particular way, the culture will be as it needs to be to deliver the strategy. 

But culture is ruled by the deepest roots of our collective psychology. Edgar Schein’s iceberg model (Fig. 1), shows that the foundation of a culture is underlying beliefs – those things that start as subjective values, but over time become embedded and unconsciously accepted as the norm.





The way things are

Underlying beliefs are powerful. They stick a culture together and drive how we act, what we pay attention to and the decisions we make. They are often difficult to describe, intangible, and only understood by people who've become used to the way the organisation works over a period of time. 

These assumptions are what can make it hard for new recruits to ‘fit in’ – getting to grips with what’s allowed, tolerated and required while getting work done e.g. Is it OK to bring half-formed ideas to the table or do I need a fully worked up proposal? Can I knock on a senior leader’s office door or do I have to make an appointment?

Three ways to help people fit in and flourish

So how can we use the culture iceberg to help us both recruit people who are a good culture fit and help them flourish quickly?

1. Understand the underpinnings of your culture

If an organisation’s culture has already been defined, check if it goes deep enough to include existing assumptions and beliefs. If not, explore them. 

Use a method like appreciative inquiry to uncover the beliefs that are helping the organisation and that you might want to amplify. Or simply introduce conversational prompts like ‘What are we assuming here?’ or ‘What are we taking for granted?’ to increase awareness of what may be going on beneath the surface. There may be things that are hidden that need to be noticed and talked about in order to help new recruits integrate quickly and be successful.

2. Paint an accurate picture

Often the ‘official’ values and expected behaviours of an organisation don’t fully represent reality. But these are what we rely on to market our culture to potential team members. We do this in an attempt to help them understand whether they want to be part of the organisation and how well they’ll fit in. But it can lead to a mismatch between the ideal and reality - undermining trust from the get-go. 

Instead, describe your culture accurately and honestly. Better to say we are ‘working towards’ or ‘aspire to have’ an innovative culture rather than say the culture is one of innovation when it isn’t…yet. 

3. Watch for the pitfalls

Hiring managers are people and, if they’ve been in their role for any length of time, they are probably conforming to organisational norms. Be aware that this can result in unconscious flaws in the recruitment process. For example, an organisation has built on a foundation of quality and safety but now aims to respond to competitive pressures by becoming more innovative. They therefore decide to hire more ‘green’ thinkers – people with behaviours and mindsets that support innovation.

As the process gets underway, the hiring manager becomes unconsciously conflicted by their unchanged legacy beliefs like, “a safe pair of hands is what works best for us”. As a result, the search slowly widens to find candidates who fulfil both the old and new criteria. The expectations are unrealistic and either a match can’t be found, or the manager settles for a hire who doesn’t quite hit the original brief. As a result, the new strategy is compromised from the outset.

Enable hiring managers to consciously choose which old ideas to let go of, and what trade-offs they may need to be open to in order to bring in the behaviours you are seeking.


Culture is the character of the organisation. Those that cultivate strong, attractive characters understand the behaviours they need to deliver their goals and the beliefs that reinforce or get in the way of those behaviours. Using this understanding to shape every touchpoint through an employee’s journey ensures the right people are attracted and recruited and that they want to stay and get fully involved. Ultimately, we can build a consistent and collective culture that focuses effort, helps people work together and make decisions with more ease and greater impact because of the shared sense of who we are, what’s necessary and what’s important.

Rubica is an organisational change consultancy that specialises in culture change. To learn more visit: 

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