Wed, Mar 29, 2017 | updated 12:54 PM IST

Fit in or stand out? Successful employee balances both

Updated: Nov 14, 2016 15:58 IST

Washington D.C. [USA], Nov.14 (ANI): If you are at work and confused between fitting in or standing out, a new study has come up with an answer suggesting that most successful employees do a bit of both, striking a balance between integration and non-conformity.

If you're the kind of person who stands out culturally, you don't follow the same norms as others in the office. In order to succeed you will need to fit into your organization structurally by being part of a tight-knit group of colleagues and if you stand out structurally, you aren't a member of any one clique at work but serve as a bridge across groups that are otherwise disconnected from each other.

In the paper "Fitting in or Standing Out? The Tradeoffs of Structural and Cultural Embeddedness", co-authors Sameer Srivastava and Amir Goldberg explore the relationship between fitting in, standing out and success within an organization.

"Most people recognize that, if they fail to differentiate themselves from their peers, they are very unlikely to get ahead," says Srivastava. "Yet fitting into a company creates a larger, motivating sense of identity for employees and enables them to collaborate with others in the organization."

The result is a conflicting pressure on workers to fit into an organization and, at the same time, stand out. Srivastava and his colleagues wanted to learn more about that tension and find ways to resolve it.

The researchers studied a mid-sized technology company's complete archive of e-mail messages exchanged among 601 full-time employees between 2009 and 2014. For privacy and confidentiality, only e-mails exchanged among the employees were analyzed and identifying information and actual message content were stripped from the data. The team created an algorithm that could analyze the natural language in e-mails, focusing on the extent to which people expressed themselves using a linguistic style that matched the style used by their colleagues.

"Some of the most informative language categories were ones whose use is governed by cultural norms -- for example, using emotional language when communicating with colleagues. People who fit in culturally learned to understand and match the linguistic norms followed by their colleagues," says Srivastava.

To learn how this relates to an employee's success, the researchers studied employee age, gender and tenure, and identified all employees who had left the company and whether their departure was voluntary or involuntary. That data enabled them to correlate professional success with fitting in and standing out. The researchers theorized that employees in the firm can be characterized by their levels of cultural assimilation as well as their attachment to various network cliques. This led them to identify four organizational archetypes: "doubly embedded actors," "disembedded actors," "assimilated brokers" and "integrated nonconformists."

What the researchers call a "doubly embedded" employee --is someone who is both culturally compliant and part of a dense network. Such a person is unlikely to get exposed to novel information and will struggle to break through the clutter in proposing ideas of his own. The researchers found that such workers were over three times more likely to be involuntarily terminated (i.e. fired) than those identified as integrated non-conformists, people who are part of a tight-knit group but still stand out culturally.

Those most likely to get ahead are called "assimilated brokers," meaning the people who are high on cultural fit and low on network cliqueness. Their mirror images, the integrated non-conformists, also gained more job success.

"The assimilated broker has connections across parts of the organization that are otherwise disconnected. At the same time, she knows how to blend in seamlessly with each of these groups even if they are quite different culturally," says Srivastava.

Clearly, both fitting in and standing out are important for career success, but the lesson, says Srivastava, is that if you blend in both structurally and culturally, you risk being seen as bland and unremarkable. At the same time, if you try to serve as a bridge across groups but lack the capacity for cultural conformity then you can wind up being perceived with suspicion and mistrust.

The goal is to find a balance between the two.

The story has been published in the American Sociological Review. (ANI)

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