I remember in junior high all the girls dressed the same. Blue jeans, boots, white belts, flannel shirts and pea coats. I would rather have jumped into a trash compactor than not look like everyone else.
But as I got older, of course, I wanted my own style. I wanted to stand out.
That's what happens to many people in the workplace, it appears. A new study looks at how we all feel threatened when we don't feel we're "special" enough. Read this latest story I did for Gannett/USA Today.....
You've heard the advice: If you're a woman or a minority and want to get ahead in a highly competitive field, look for a mentor to champion you.
But the downside to that strategy happens when others like you want the same mentor. You all may identify with this mentor, but the clustering of employees creates its own problems.
Putting too many women or minorities together in a group can lead to "ghettoes" of low-power minority groups, says Katherine L. Milkman, assistant professor of operations and information management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. These under-represented groups may think they aren't special enough, that it's better to leave and try to succeed elsewhere.
"Clustering minorities brings social cohesion, but it may make them (minority employees) think their chances for promotion are diminished," she says. "They sort of feel like, 'Well, maybe they don't need all of us.' They start to feel like they're not special and won't stand out. It starts to feel like a competition."
One surprising aspect of her research was that even men feel competition more keenly if they're around other men similar to themselves.
"We weren't expecting to see the same types of phenomenon for men," Milkman says. "But we actually do see these same types of competitive effects in terms of likelihood of leaving for men who are juniors. We do see that the more men there are in your work group, the more likely you are to exit."
Managers may want to re-think putting similar employees in a work group, she says. Instead of helping a team to bond, those similarities may prompt employees to feel threatened by one another because they don't see a chance to stand out and work their way up in a company. That may be true especially if a limited number of minorities are available to mentor workers similar to themselves.
The answer may be to disperse minority groups throughout an organization.
"People can feel like they stand out. Everyone wants to feel valued and unique," she says.
In addition, she thinks companies still should continue to create opportunities to network and make minorities and women feel part of a community, such as having lunches for women.
Milkman began her research while earning her doctorate four years ago at Harvard University. She and her mentor, Professor Kathleen L. McGinn at Harvard Business School, began looking at data and employee interviews from a large national law firm. She'd like to look at industries that aren't as competitive to see if the same findings hold true.
In the large law firm, they found that a greater number of female supervisors improved chances that junior-level female employees would be promoted.
Yet having senior men around doesn't provide any benefit for men. The reason: So many men are around that they don't ever lack resources to help them get ahead.