Standing Out While Fitting In

How can you be your authentic self while simultaneously fitting in at a company with a strong culture?

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What should you do when you join your ideal employer only to discover that it’s not ideal after all? Even at a dream job, the fit between the person and the organization may need to be fostered. Take a former student of ours, Roberto, who received two highly coveted job offers as a second-year MBA. Both were from recognized financial advisory firms that offered similar compensation and nearly identical paths to partnership. At either company, Roberto would have the chance to work with bright and dedicated colleagues, help solve challenging problems, and craft advice that would have a real impact on clients’ business.

For Roberto, the choice between the companies boiled down to their cultural “feel.” One had a reputation for being rather formal and hierarchical; the other felt more informal and free flowing. If the first company were a blazer, Roberto noted, “it would fit, but it would be a size too small.” Given his own self-deprecating sense of humor and informal work style, Roberto saw the second company as a better fit and accepted its offer. Roberto did what the management gurus urge us all to do: bring our “whole self” to work. Rather than wasting energy trying to conform to a culture one size too small, he chose the culture where he expected he could succeed as his most authentic self.

Companies are encouraged to create a strong, consistent culture. When an organization’s cultural values resonate with people, it attracts the “right” prospective employees. Once hired, employees feel motivated by the values shared with their colleagues and the ease of engaging with like-minded people. Moreover, as research clearly demonstrates, strong workplace camaraderie serves a critical coordinative function.1 The company can dispose of thick employee handbooks because “who we are and how we do things here” is clearly established.

But as much as person-organization culture fit fulfills our desire to belong — a key psychological human need — a perfect fit is hard to come by, as Roberto quickly learned. His chosen employer had a culture that could best be described as “supportive, high positive energy, and very social.” Roberto valued these qualities but also knew that he needed time to himself to produce his best results.

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References

1. J.A. Chatman and S.E. Cha, “Leading by Leveraging Culture,” California Management Review 45, no. 4 (summer 2003): 20-34; and E. Van den Steen, “Culture Clash: The Costs and Benefits of Homogeneity,” Management Science 56, no. 10 (October 2010): 1718-1738.

2. M.B. Brewer, “The Social Self: On Being the Same and Different at the Same Time,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 17, no. 5 (October 1991): 475-482.

3. A. Rattan and C.S. Dweck, “What Happens After Prejudice in the Workplace? How Minorities’ Mindsets Affect Their Outlook on Future Social Relations,” Journal of Applied Psychology 103, no. 6 (June 2018): 676-687.

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