Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 238
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Fitting In

Research reveals new ways managers can help new employees "fit in."

If you were to move to a new job, with similar duties but new people, one of your greatest concerns would be "fitting in." Will people like you? Will they trust you and help you with the many details of the work? Will they help you adjust?

Francis Flynn, from Columbia University, has studied the adjustment of new employees for several years, and he recently completed a study that explored adjustment in diverse work settings, where the new person was strikingly different from the people already on the job. He narrowed his study to differences in race, gender, and national origin.

Flynn found that when a person is both new and different from his/her coworkers, "fitting in" often doesn't happen. New employees feel left out and harassed. They experience subtle forms of prejudice, and their work suffers. They often move on and carry with them unpleasant memories and unkind stories that they pass on to anyone who will listen.

But that's not true with every one.

Some new employees, who are strikingly different, "fit in" just fine, and that was the focus of Flynn's most recent study. He wanted to know what these people do to influence their own acceptance by others. It may be something others can copy. It may be something managers can encourage.

Flynn explains the problem this way.

In work settings, people form groups. There are in-groups composed of people we like who help us feel comfortable, and there are out-groups composed of people who arouse our suspicions and our defenses. We help people in our in-groups. We withhold help from people in out-groups.

New people who are strikingly different in race, gender, and national origin usually find themselves assigned out-group status, but this doesn't last very long for people who successfully manage the impression that others form of them.

Flynn found that in-group members form their impressions based on the contribution they expect new people to make to the cooperative work they must accomplish.

When new people are talkative and outgoing, it helps people form clearer impressions of the qualities that led the new employees to be hired in the first place: their skills, knowledge, values, and interests. This reveals their suitability.

And when new people are adaptable, they strive to be the type of person that others seem to need and expect.

Taken together, these qualities of being talkative, outgoing, and adaptable lead people to reject the out-group label for these new employees. Their out-group prejudices remain undisturbed, but these new people become part of the in-group because they are expected to make a valuable contribution, and so they enjoy all the benefits of in-group status.

Telling new people to be talkative, outgoing, and adaptable would seem to solve the problem, but the fact is that some people are shy and need prompting to disclose personal information. Someone needs to ask them questions when a relaxed, social opportunity arises, and you could do that. You could also assign them duties which you know will display their ability to the others.

Some people are also stubborn and resist adapting themselves to the demands of their work setting. Instead of asking themselves "What kind of person do these people need and expect me to be?" they ask "How can I be 'me' in this setting?" This stubbornness also calls for encouragement and prompting from you. Give examples based on the work your people do. Give examples based on your own experiences.

Finally, Flynn suggests that managers carefully observe how differing work situations influence information sharing, and he suggests you arrange the work to encourage it. For example, he suggests that critical goals and functions be organized so that everyone's cooperative effort is required to fulfill them. Your goal should be to increase both the contact and the information sharing that occurs among your people concerning the contributions people make to the tasks at hand.

Reference: Flynn, Francis J., Jennifer Chatman, and Sandra Sapataro (2001) Getting to Know You: The Influence of Personality on Impressions and Performance of Demographically Different People in Organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, September 2001, 414-438.

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