Like to Stand Out? Why It May Be a Bad Career Strategy

A young stand out demonstrates his ball skills to team-mates during after-school football practice in 1950s England

A young stand out demonstrates his ball skills to teammates during after-school football practice in 1950s England | Greated/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When looking for a new job, or maybe fishing for a raise or promotion, we encounter the same advice over and over. Typically, we’re told to find a way to differentiate ourselves from the crowd. To stand out, somehow. That’s definitely a good strategy, as making an attempt to stand out can usually garner the attention we’re looking for. But what if you’re more of an introvert, or simply like to fit in with the crowd? Is that going to set you back?

We all tend to gravitate toward a common goal: getting ahead. That can mean getting a better job or getting promoted. And there have been thousands of articles, podcasts, TV shows, etc. that explore just how to do it. There’s a great deal of wisdom out there to sift through. But in the end, it usually comes down to one thing.

Be better than the next guy. Stand out. Be “so good they can’t ignore you,” to borrow a phrase from Cal Newport.

New research, however, shows that choosing to fit in — or simply blending in with the crowd at work — also has its merits. Researchers at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business recently published a new study in the journal American Sociological Review, and according to that paper, each strategy (trying to fit in, or stand out) comes with advantages and disadvantages.

Stand out, or fit in?

A group of business professionals, all of whom seem to fit in with each other

A group of business professionals, all of whom seem to fit in with each other | iStock.com

The goal of the study was to find out if the most successful employees in a given organization stand out or fit in. The researchers looked at how people conducted themselves, knowingly or unknowingly. Then, they noted how that behavior translated into success in their given environment.

“Most people recognize that, if they fail to differentiate themselves from their peers, they are very unlikely to get ahead,” said Sameer Srivastava, one of the study’s authors, in a UC Berkeley press release. “Yet fitting into a company creates a larger, motivating sense of identity for employees and enables them to collaborate with others in the organization.”

While there are innumerable ways to “stand out” or “fit in” in any given setting, the research team, in this case, examined the language used in corporate emails from more than 600 workers at a single technology company. Using a backlog of five year’s worth of messages, “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.”

As for what the researchers found? You should focus on both standing out and fitting in — as unhelpful as that conclusion may be.

“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 brief said.

Perks of being a wallflower

A group of coworkers share a hearty giggle

A group of coworkers share a hearty giggle | iStock.com/Rawpixel Ltd

“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,” the report continued.

In other words, the most successful employees find ways to avoid being outshined. They also find ways to stand out among their peers. It’s a tricky balance to strike — but evidently, is the strategy that works.

How, exactly, does someone achieve such a balance? That’s the real trick, and what makes it so difficult to pull off. Some people are going to be rockstars at work: They simply have a special quality about them. Others have to work at it, and hope that hard work is recognized and rewarded. But you don’t want to appear too eager to please, or seen as a suck-up. You want your social engineering to appear effortless.

Finding ways to blend in with different cliques at work is a difficult but necessary step. Some people can do it with ease. Others can’t. That’s not to say you can’t practice and get better, though.

“If you blend in both structurally and culturally, you risk being seen as bland and unremarkable,” Berkeley’s brief said. “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.”

What you need to do is find a way to straddle the line. Be a rock star and an integrated team player, simultaneously.

Follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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