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Fitting In Or Standing Out: Which One Gets You Ahead Faster?

New research finds that the best road to career success is to understand corporate culture but not be a slave to fitting in.

Fitting In Or Standing Out: Which One Gets You Ahead Faster?
[Photo: Unsplash user David Schap]

If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s better to fit in or stand out at work when you’re gunning for recognition or advancement, new research indicates that it may be best to do a little of both.

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A paper titled “Fitting in or Standing Out? The Tradeoffs of Structural and Cultural Embeddedness,” which will be soon be published in the American Sociological Review, looks at the relationship between success in a company and whether an employee changes their behavior in line with company culture or not.

To figure out to what extent trying to fit in is tied to future success, the researchers created an algorithm that analyzed the language used in more than 10 million internal email messages exchanged over five years by 601 employees in a tech firm. They then compared that to who got promoted, who quit, and who got fired.

The researchers examined whether or not a person was using the same language and communication style as their colleagues in their emails, indicators of whether they were fitting in or standing out. For example, the researchers looked at how colleagues talked about personal matters or whether or not they swore. “People who fit in culturally learned to understand and match the linguistic norms followed by their colleagues,” said one of the study’s researchers in an interview.

Read More: Do You Have A F*cking Problem With Swearing At Work?

The researchers found that employees fit into one of four distinct groups:

  • Doubly embedded actors who fit into the culture and are part of a larger dense network.
  • Disembedded actors who fit into the culture but are not part of a larger dense network
  • Assimilated brokers who fit into the culture but aren’t a part of a tight-knit network
  • Integrated nonconformists who don’t fit the culture but are part of a tight-knit network.

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As employees of a tech company that prizes innovation, it was easy to see who was more likely to come up with novel ideas and who had access to valuable new information. Disembedded actors might be standouts and more likely to come up with an innovative idea, but without conforming to a group, those ideas were more likely to be dismissed or not trusted.

On the other hand, doubly embedded employees who both fit in and were members of a larger network find it challenging to bring their new ideas to the table. The researchers also found that workers in this group were over three times more likely to be fired than those among the integrated nonconformists.  

Those most likely to succeed were the assimilated brokers and the integrated nonconformists, suggesting that the tightly knit networks helped those who went against the company culture grain as well as those who conformed to it. In particular, the assimilated brokers were able to get ahead because they were able to understand and fit into the culture and could move between different groups in the company with ease.

The takeaway is clear: Fitting in isn’t always a way to get ahead, but it’s necessary to be able to in order to work effectively with different teams across the entire organization. The key is learning to find a way to do both.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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