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At Work, Stick Out Rather Than Fit In

by Alex Gaterud
November 2, 2016 | Work

If you’re a young employee just starting out in your real-world job, there’s nothing more nerve-wracking than preparing for your first few performance reviews. All of your output, both in terms of your work and your intangible contributions to the office, are under scrutiny — and before you walk into those meetings, you have no idea what to expect.

It helps to have colleagues on your side vouching for you — you can’t always impress the boss, but you can consistently do right by the people you work with every day — and, according to recent research on the topic of organizational performance, standing out in your language, dress and personal style might give you a leg up.

Colleague relationships and workplace culture and size

According to a study published recently by Amir Goldberg, a professor at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, it probably depends on your workplace culture.

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Goldberg recently published new findings on the success and advancement of employees at a mid-size tech firm in a study of the company’s database of internal emails over a five-year period. Using language analysis software, Goldberg asked whether and how language and personal expressions that conformed to the company lingo at large affected an employee’s contributions to business.

In his analysis, he discovered four different types of workers: “assimilated brokers” — culturally-relevant employees who don’t belong to any one group, “integrated nonconformists” — workers who stand out culturally but definitively belong to the organization’s work structures, “doubly embedded actors” -- a “carbon copy of every other geeky member of his team” who “isn’t perceived as unique or indispensable in any way” and “disembedded actors” – people who don’t belong to a group and sticks out culturally — in a negative way.

The “assimilated brokers” and “integrated nonconformists” tended to perform well in this mid-size firm. Conversely, “doubly embedded actors” and “disembedded actors” were much more likely to stall out or be fired.

stick out

So, if standing out in a way that makes people comfortable is the key to success, how does an employee accomplish that?

“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,” Goldberg said. “You want to distinguish yourself from the pack without making anyone in the pack uncomfortable.”

Better yet? Figure out how to connect yourself throughout your workplace without embedding yourself in any specific group.

“The ‘assimilated broker’ is the ultimate networker, the person with friends in marketing, customer service, engineering,” Goldberg said. “She is well-connected across the firm but not really a part of any one group.”

Though she’s less strongly connected to work groups, her use of company language and style make her indispensable to its operations.

“Integrated nonconformists” are in the trenches with a work group and feel the structural security of being part of a tight-knit group said Goldberg. His success comes from being visible as “a little different”: “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,” he said.

Startups: High career risk, high potential reward

Of course, not all companies are large enough to support these clearly defined work styles. What happens when you’re working with a partner in a startup? Similar research published by Elizabeth G. Pontikes at the University of Chicago and William P. Barnett at Stanford found that startups standing out from the herd — or at least being a little more cautious about entering runaway markets — reap bigger benefits in the end.

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In viewing the overall success of software startups from 1990 to 2002, the researchers compared companies that rushed to enter hot markets with unimpressive products against ones that focused on developing stronger products in less glamorous or “tainted” industries and found that the latter group found greater success over time.

Pontikes and Barnette studied more than 4,000 organizations and compiled market data on their business operations, including their venture-capital funding process and initial public offering dates. Additionally, they interviewed executives, board members and other stakeholders to determine the company’s thought process when developing a product and entering a market.

Their findings demonstrated that both software firms and venture capitalists had a herd mentality — in other words, if a tech market is hot, the company will rush to develop a product to capitalize on the trend. That rush generally meant that those companies overlooked whether or not their product was even a good fit for the market.

By contrast, companies that entered “untouchable” markets, like those with a history of bankruptcies, spent more time on developing a good product-market fit and wound up with a better-quality offering. Those companies, despite investing more time and money into market entry, fared better in the long run.

“Although non-consensus behavior may seem like foolishness at the time, it turns out to be a wise alternative — if the organization can weather the heightened scrutiny,” the researchers said. “Consensus entrepreneurs can readily garner support to enter a hot market, but as a result are less viable.”

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Alex Gaterud
Alex Gaterud is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. As of 2016, the three most important things in his life are Bruce Springsteen, Sour Patch Kids and playing the drums.
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