Is it better to fit in or stand out? That question has vexed all of us at one time or another, from teenagers to aspiring executives to sociologists. The answer, says Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Amir Goldberg: It depends. If you’re the kind of person who stands out culturally — you wear sweater vests and bowties to the office — then 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 have friends across departments — then you better fit in culturally (so ditch the bowties).
Goldberg and his coauthor Sameer Srivastava at the University of California, Berkeley, explain the reasoning behind that answer in their new paper, “Fitting In or Standing Out? The Tradeoffs of Structural and Cultural Embeddedness,” soon to be published in the American Sociological Review. The paper, written in collaboration with Christopher Potts, an associate professor of linguistics at Stanford, and graduate researchers Govind Manian and Will Monroe, explores the relationship between fitting in, standing out, and success within an organization.
The modern corporate world generally celebrates those who stand out from the pack, rewarding them with promotions and salary increases. “No one wants to be perceived as average or replaceable, especially in tech companies that value innovation, diversity, and creativity,” says Goldberg. Yet fitting into a company is also important. It creates a larger, motivating sense of identity for employees and enables them to be productive members of the organization, which by definition depends on cooperation. The result is a conflicting pressure on workers to fit into an organization and, at the same time, stand out. Goldberg and his colleagues wanted to learn more about that tension and find ways to resolve it.
They took a novel approach, examining the language used in corporate emails. The researchers were given access to a mid-sized technology company’s complete archive of email messages exchanged among 601 full-time employees between 2009 and 2014. As a way to protect privacy and confidentiality, only emails exchanged among employees were analyzed. Those sent to or received from people outside the company were excluded, as were messages exchanged among the seven members of the executive team and with the firm’s attorneys. The raw data was stored on secure research servers installed at the company. Goldberg, Srivastava, Monroe, and Potts created an algorithm that could analyze the natural language in emails; the most difficult part of the analysis was figuring out what categories to use to organize language and filter out what wasn’t meaningful.
“We wanted to look at language that reflected cultural style and the level of cultural alignment, not language that referred only to a job’s function or the industry,” says Goldberg. Using an established language-analysis program, the researchers looked for specific words such as “I” or “we,” as well as “should” or “would.” They also looked for expletives. In some companies, says Goldberg, swearing is a way to assert authority. “In that culture, imagine if a new person comes in and uses very polite language,” he says. “That would reflect a low level of cultural assimilation in a company where cursing is acceptable.”
They closely examined the structure and pattern of email interactions to learn more about small, tight-knit cliques within the organization. Previous research has shown that bridging the gaps between these cliques benefits employees because of the information that flows to them from different groups. “They are able to connect networks that are usually disconnected, so they serve an important role,” says Goldberg. “They have their tentacles stretched into different worlds, and stand out because of that.”
To learn how this relates to an employee’s success, Goldberg, Srivastava, and their collaborators relied on human resource data supplied by the company. In addition to employee age, gender, and tenure, it identified all employees who had left the company and whether their departure was voluntary or involuntary. That data enabled the researchers to correlate professional success with fitting in and standing out. “Involuntary exits are a sharp sign of negative attainment, because employees are at greatest risk of experiencing that when their performance is weak,” Goldberg says.
The researchers concluded that employees in the firm can be characterized by their levels of cultural and structural “embeddedness,” after measuring their general cultural assimilation as well as the strength of their attachment to various network cliques. This led the researchers to identify four organizational archetypes: “doubly embedded actors,” “disembedded actors,” “assimilated brokers” and “integrated nonconformists.”
Those most likely to get ahead are what they call “assimilated brokers,” meaning people who are high on cultural fit and low on network cliquishness, and their mirror images, the “integrated nonconformists,” meaning people who are part of a tight-knit group but still stand out culturally.
“The assimilated broker is the ultimate networker, the person with friends in marketing, customer service, engineering,” Goldberg says. “She is well-connected across the firm but not really a part of any one group.” Yet she blends in culturally, speaking and dressing the same as everyone else. The integrated nonconformist, on the other hand, has the security and mutual commitment that comes from being part of a clique but has not fully assimilated into the corporate culture. “He doesn’t repeat the same old Star Wars references, but does inject the occasional hip-hop reference into conversation. He wears an ironic, vintage button-down shirt rather than a T-shirt with the company logo.”
What the researchers call a “doubly embedded” employee, meaning someone who is both culturally compliant and part of a dense network, never stands out and isn’t likely to move ahead. Think of the geeky software engineer who is part of his tight little team, but doesn't interact outside that group. He isn’t aware of what’s happening in the company as a whole and knows no more than his immediate peers. Because of that, a doubly embedded actor brings nothing new to the table. “He is a carbon copy of every other geeky member of his team,” says Goldberg. “He isn’t perceived as unique or indispensable in any way.” The archetype most likely to lose their job is the “disembedded actor,” who interacts with people in different parts of the organization but isn’t part of any one group and doesn’t fit in culturally either. “Think of a cocktail party where this guy tries to network with you but the conversation is really painful,” says Goldberg. “That’s the disembedded actor, and being a bad networker is far worse than not trying to network at all.”
Comparing their email analysis to the company’s personnel records, the researchers found that workers identified as doubly embedded actors were over three times more likely to be involuntarily terminated (i.e., fired) than those identified as integrated nonconformists.
Clearly, both fitting in and standing out are important for career success, but the lesson, says Goldberg, is that if you blend in structurally and culturally — especially in tech firms, which put a premium on creativity and innovation — you will be seen as bland and unremarkable. At the same time, if you dress and speak differently than your peers but you also aren’t part of any one group, you will wind up being perceived as odd and threatening.
The goal is to find a balance between the two. “Either maintain your place as part of a tight-knit group but stand out by behaving a little weirdly, or be the smooth networker who knows what’s going on across the organization but also knows how to blend in culturally,” says Goldberg. “You want to distinguish yourself from the pack without making anyone in the pack uncomfortable.”