There are vastly different schools of thought on the best ways to get ahead at work; put your head down and play the long game, or be yourself and march to the beat of your own drum? In a marketplace overflowing with advice, who has the right answer?
It’s a challenge we all face; the perpetual push/pull between our ‘work self’ and our ‘real’ self; the one who re-emerges when we step out of the elevator onto the street each evening. For some, the two are less Jekyll and Hyde, more Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee; they’re the ones surrounded by colleagues in fits of laughter following a well-timed joke. For others, it’s more difficult to find a comfortable balance between expressing themselves authentically at work and conforming to company culture; whether that calls for professionalism and drive, or creativity and innovation.
Studies tell us that of all social environments, work is the place we feel least comfortable. So it’s good to have a game plan. But take a casual stroll through the internet and you’ll find a million pieces of advice on whether or not to be yourself at work; much of it contradictory.
Does this new study bring some much needed clarity?
Does sticking to the script help you get promoted?
In a recent study published in the American Sociological Review, researchers created an algorithm to analyse the language used in more than 10 million internal email messages exchanged by employees at a tech firm. They looked at whether or not a person was using the same language and communication style as their colleagues in their emails as an indicator of whether they were fitting in, or standing out.
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.
So who came out on top?
The implication behind these findings is that belonging to tightly knit networks helped those who went against the company culture grain – as well as those who conformed to it. “Assimilated brokers” were particularly successful in getting ahead because they were able to understand and fit into the culture and could move between different groups in the company with ease.
Not so successful were employees defined as ‘doubly embedded’ (who both fit in and were members of a larger network). They found it challenging to bring their new ideas to the table – and they were also over three times more likely to be fired than those in the ‘integrated nonconformist’ category. ‘Disembedded actors’, too, might be standouts – more likely to come up with an innovative idea – but without conforming to a group, their ideas were more likely to be dismissed or not trusted.
Belonging vs being yourself
We’ve written before about how feelings of authenticity affect success in workplace situations; when this study published by the Harvard Business Review explored how feelings of authenticity impact social success in workplace situations, they found that those who aimed to be genuine instead of catering to their audience appeared more confident, less awkward, and were more successful overall.
Conclusion: Be yourself. Also, don’t be yourself
But we can’t simply rely on our winning personalities to do well at work; we need to get along with others’ winning personalities too. “No one company culture is right for every single person,” explains Tom Gimbel, founder of recruiting firm LaSalle Network. And as this study shows, there’s no one right way to approach success at work either. It shows that while fitting in isn’t always a way to get ahead, it is necessary to be able to in order to work effectively with different teams and people within an organisation.
Perhaps the best mantra to take up is ‘be yourself, but carefully.’ Authenticity works best when coupled with self awareness about when to break out of the box and when to mimic the crowd to best further your goals.
But is this helpful advice? Essentially it’s telling us that both sides of the conversation are correct: stand out, but to thrive you first need to fit in. The key is learning to find a way to do both that works for you.
What ‘type’ are you at work? Tell us in the comments.