How to Pass Culture Fit Questions and Not Be an Asshole

I was recently streaming programming on Twitch and a viewer asked the question “How do I pass the culture fit questions in an interview?”

It stumped me. It was a question I had never thought about before. I believe I have been blessed with social talent, and a seemingly never-ending fount of social lubrication. I was chubby growing up and learned at a really young age how to diffuse tense situations with humor, and made sure that people thought of me as “funny, and cool” before “fat, and awkward.” People generally like me, and I think I’m really damned likable. I found myself struggling to explain what had worked for me in the past when “passing the culture fit test.”

But, after thinking about it off-cam I realized that I have conducted a lot of interviews over my past decade in tech. I can answer this question really well from the side of “what do I look for when assessing culture fit?” I have hired plenty of people that I don’t find traditionally “likable.” There are many engineers with whom I dislike spending time personally, but generally enjoy working with them. Likability and “culture fit” are not correlated in my mind.

At Pandora there was a quietly spoken rule to make sure that a candidate passes the “not an asshole test.” The passing criteria test was never properly defined, but it was described to me by a leader in engineering as “you’d be able to be stuck in an elevator with them for a few hours.” I’ve found a huge flaw in this way of thinking, since it is a) actually ableist against candidates with social disorders, and b) seems really susceptible to unconscious bias. At Twitch, however, there is a cultural tenet called “We play co-op” that states “we offer and crave constructive input; we reject negativity and backbiting.” I really like this. It felt like a lot better passing criteria than “do you like this person?”, because it actually summed up the makings of an asshole really well. Assholes don’t crave constructive feedback, they definitely don’t deliver it, they often see and vocalize the most negative aspects of a situation, and are vectors of political machinations and gossip.

I’ve found a really good interview question that uncovers these traits really well:

“What is the most useful criticism you have ever received?”

The question is designed to draw out the following answers:

There are generally three types of “red flag” answers I get from this question:

THE HUMBLE BRAG “I am too dedicated,” or “I don’t have great work-life balance,” or “I am too passionate about the projects I work on.” This always boils down to ‘I am exposing a weakness that is actually a strength, and pretending it’s a weakness’. This answer comes out in a lot of different ways during the course of an interview. I have a theory that it’s when a candidate is trying to show no weaknesses because they are insecure about some very bad weaknesses. Often times it’s a lack of experience, technical ability, or inter-personal skills. When I get this kind of answer I like to probe a little deeper. Sometimes there does exist a true nugget of humility underneath that thin veneer of “I AM AWESOME.” But, the strongest candidates are neither ashamed, nor surprised they don’t know something. The unknown excites them, and when confronted with their own weaknesses, they are not afraid to face them head on.

I WAS JUST EATING CRACKERS — this answer, by far, makes for the best television. This is the other side of bitch eating crackers, the concept that once you dislike someone, you’ll find almost any of the things they do annoying, and give feedback about it. This answer is a long-winded story about how they have been victimized by a personal agenda orchestrated by a former employer, colleague, or company. While I am sure this has actually happened to some people, the choice to air their dirty laundry out in the middle of an interview is rather questionable. I’ve noticed the candidate is always simultaneously the victim and the hero in these situations. That is a dangerous line of thought. It’s this kind of thought that means a candidate isn’t really looking back critically at what happened and what they may have done better in whatever situation they were in.

I know this sounds like a train-wreck of an answer, but I’ve actually encountered this a few times. From my experience, very rarely does a group of people “gang up” on someone to get them fired for the sole reason they are unlikable. What was more likely is they were overall “difficult to work with,” meaning they didn’t take feedback well, believed they were better than everyone else, and showed little to no respect for their co-workers.

PASS — When this answer stumps a candidate, I think it means they don’t spend a lot of time on self-reflection. When I’ve encountered a “pass” on this question, I usually prompt them for examples from earlier in their lives, when their brains were still squishy and developing, like university or high school. If they can’t come up with anything even then, they most likely don’t stay up at night wondering what they could have done to improve a situation that didn’t go great. Well, that or they’re nervous. If their hands are shaking, their eyes are darting or their speech is slurred, just come back to the question at the end.

My VP at Twitch served in the Marines for 13 years before tech, and mentioned that he could do a 1:1 mapping between Amazon/Twitch cultural tenets and the US Marines leaderships principles. I’ve actually found I like the Marines leadership principles better because they lack fluff and buzz words. The comparable principle to “Don’t be an asshole” and “We play co-op” in the Marines is “Know yourself and seek self-improvement.” Knowing yourself includes recognizing your flaws, and mistakes. Seeking self-improvement is the special humble sauce that makes knowing yourself a super strength. People aren’t perceived as assholes because of their social grace, ability to tell a good joke, or interests. The only assholes I’ve met are people who are so set in their ways, they can’t be bothered to reflect on anything they do or say because in their mind they are always right.

So, don’t be an asshole. Spend some time reflecting on things that went poorly, and what you did or didn’t do to make the situation better. When someone asks you a culture fit question, tell the interviewer what about yourself keeps you up at night. The honesty is refreshing, and you’re signaling to them “hey, look at us, we’re not assholes, we know ourselves and seek improvement.”

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