Mind Over Matter

To Fit In or Stand Out, That’s the Question

Research suggests that how you fit into your organization — or stand out from its cultural norms — is correlated to your success.


CO_WebSite_BlogHeaders v2-09What category do you fall into?

I know we’d both like to think we’re above this but subtly, in some way or another, we’re not.

You either fit in or you don’t. You either stand out or you don’t. Maybe at this point in your career, you’ve made peace with where you stand — wherever that is. However, a new study suggests it could be impacting your success.

“Most people recognize that, if they fail to differentiate themselves with their peers, they are very unlikely to get ahead,” said Sameer Srivastava, coauthor of “Fitting in or Standing Out? The Tradeoffs of Structural and Cultural Embeddedness,” which was published in the American Sociological Review journal in October of this year. “Yet fitting into a company creates a larger, motivating sense of identity for employees and enables them to collaborate with others in the organization.”

So, people find themselves caught between the two pressures, which we don’t need science to tell us is a stressful dilemma.

In the study, researchers studied the email archive in a midsized tech company, analyzing language in messages exchanged among more than 600 employees during a five-year period. Leaving out identifying and other confidential information, researchers created an algorithm that analyzed the natural language used in the messages. The goal was to look at the extent to which employees expressed themselves using a linguistic style that matched the style used by the colleagues they were in communication with.

Srivastava said the most informative language categories were those shaped by the prevailing workplace culture. As such, if employees understood and fit in culturally, the language they used matched their colleagues.

Researchers related that “fittedness” to employees’ success by comparing the email analysis against factors like age, gender and tenure, and identified all staff who left the company, voluntarily or involuntarily. Through this process, correlations were drawn between professional success and fitting in and standing out.

Categorized by their level of cultural assimilation and the extent of their network within the organization, the employees could be identified in four organizational archetypes. They were either “doubly embedded actors,” “disembedded actors,” “assimilated brokers” or “integrated nonconformists.”

A doubly embedded actor, for instance, was both compliant with the company culture and part of a dense network — meaning this person wasn’t likely to be open to new ideas and would struggle to propose ideas of their own. Essentially, they weren’t making waves. Researchers actually found this type of employee to be three times more likely to be fired than a colleague who belonged to a tight-knit group but stood out culturally.

That integrated nonconformist and the assimilated broker types — those who fit the company culture exceptionally well but were low on network cliqueness — gained more job success than their too-embedded or not-embedded-at-all peers.

So, it pays to be conscientious about this. Don’t panic if you’re not a nonconformist, but at least be aware. One could argue the merits of preferring to be an integrated nonconformist to being an assimilated broker, but as far as learning leaders go, does one seem more advantageous to you?

For CLOs to be effective, what matters more: fitting in or standing out — or do they matter equally to their success?

Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. To comment, please email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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