Fit in

Power of Haas Ideas

Fit In or Stand Out?

For career success, balance integration and nonconformity, says Asst. Prof. Sameer Srivastava

Is it better to fit in or stand out at work? A new study suggests that the answer depends on your position in your network structure and your degree of cultural alignment.

If you stand out culturally by not following the same norms as your colleagues, you’ll need to be part of a tight-knit group and thus fit into your organization structurally to succeed. And if you aren’t a member of any one clique but serve as a bridge across groups that are otherwise disconnected from each other, then you better fit in culturally.

The research findings, published in the American Sociological Review, were co-authored by Haas Asst. Prof. Sameer Srivastava and Amir Goldberg of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in collaboration with Christopher Potts, Stanford linguistics professor, and Stanford graduate researchers Govind Manian and Will Monroe.

“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.”

Srivastava and his colleagues, fascinated by that tension, examined a mid-sized technology company’s complete archive of email messages exchanged among 601 full-time employees between 2009 and 2014.

The team created an algorithm that analyzed how closely the emails’ natural language mirrored that of their colleagues. For privacy, only emails exchanged among employees were analyzed and identifying information and actual message content were stripped from the data.

“Some of the most informative language categories were ones whose use is governed by cultural norms—for example, talking about family, using personal pronouns, and even swearing. People who fit in culturally learned to understand and match the linguistic norms followed by their colleagues,” says Srivastava.

The researchers then studied employee age, gender, and tenure, and identified those who had left the company, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Four organizational archetypes emerged: “doubly embedded actors,” “disembedded actors,” “assimilated brokers,” and “integrated nonconformists.”

A doubly embedded employee is someone both culturally compliant and part of a dense network. Such a person is unlikely to get exposed to novel information and will struggle to propose new ideas. They were over three times more likely to be involuntarily terminated than those identified as integrated nonconformists, people who are part of a tight-knit group but who still stand out culturally. Those most likely to get ahead are assimilated brokers, people high on cultural fit and low on network cliqueness. Integrated nonconformists 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.

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, you can wind up being perceived with suspicion and mistrust. The goal is to find a balance between the two.

The original version of this article was published by the Stanford Graduate School of Business on Insights by Stanford Business.

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