On the Job: Is it Better to Fit In or Stand Out?

Study finds the most successful employees do a bit of both, striking a balance between integration and nonconformity.

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’re the kind of person who stands out culturally — you don’t follow the same norms as the 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 — then you better fit in culturally.

In the paper, “Fitting in or Standing Out? The Tradeoffs of Structural and Cultural Embeddedness,” published in the American Sociological Review, co-authors Sameer Srivastava of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and Amir Goldberg of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business explore the relationship between fitting in, standing out, and success within an organization. The paper is written in collaboration with Christopher Potts, professor of linguistics at Stanford, 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 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.

Examining the language used in corporate emails provided useful, raw data. The researchers studied a mid-sized technology company’s complete archive of email messages exchanged among 601 full-time employees between 2009 and 2014. For privacy and confidentiality, only emails exchanged among 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 emails, 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 nonconformists, 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 people who are high on cultural fit and low on network cliqueness. Their mirror images, the 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.

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, 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.

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