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Key to workplace success is balance between fitting in and standing out

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Standing out amongst your colleagues is often the key to workplace success, but how do you separate yourself from the pack without becoming Toby from “The Office”? Because everyone hates Toby.

A new study by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley says that the key may be in finding a balance between the two.

“Most people recognize that, if they fail to differentiate themselves from their peers, they are very unlikely to get ahead,” co-author Sameer Srivastava said in a 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.”

The researchers examined email exchanges, which ad been stripped of personal information, between 601 full-time employees at a technology company from 2009 and 2014.

Using an algorithm designed to analyze if workers were expressing themselves using the same linguistic style the researchers said they could determine how colleagues were getting along and forming friend groups.

“Some of the most informative language categories were ones whose use is governed by cultural norms — for example, using emotional language when communicating with colleagues,” said Srivastava.

“People who fit in culturally learned to understand and match the linguistic norms followed by their colleagues.”

In order to link the data to employee success, the study also looked at how employee’s age, gender, tenure and whether those who had left the company did so voluntarily or were forced out.

The study broke down employees’ workplace assimilation and clique formation patterns into four different groups: “doubly embedded actors,” disembedded actors,” assimilated brokers” and “integrated nonconformists.”

One the worst positions to be in was a doubly embedded actor.

The category was defined as workers who were deeply assimilated into the office culture and part of a clique, which gave them acceptance and trust in the organization, but their lack of distinctiveness made it difficult for them to be recognized as “unique and irreplaceable.”

They are also unlikely to get to be exposed to unique information and will struggle to break through the clutter to propose their own ideas.

The researchers also found that they were more than three times more likely to be fired than integrated nonconformists, who are part of a tight-knit group but stand apart from the normal workplace culture.

Those who most likely to rise above their peers were the assimilated brokers, who fit into the workplace culture but were not part of a clique, protecting them from being perceived as untrustworthy or self-serving and allowing them to act as a bridge in the company network.

“The assimilated broker has connections across parts of the organization that are otherwise disconnected,” said Srivastava.

“At the same time, (they) know how to blend in seamlessly with each of these groups even if they are quite different culturally.”

The integrated nonconformists — who comparatively gained less access to exclusive because of their distinctiveness and lack of connections across the company network — were still seen as trustworthy, were in information-rich relationships, could inject their own ideas into the company and were thus found to be better equipped to climb the workplace hierarchy.

But Srivastava said there is also the challenge of not being seen as fitting in both culturally and structurally, or having a large network of contacts, which has been tied to greater upward mobility and higher compensation.

The consequence, Srivastava said, is being seen as both bland and unremarkable.

On the opposite end, those who attempt to be a bridge across cliques, but can’t fit into the workplace culture also face the risk of being perceived with suspicion and mistrust.