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Embrace Your Office Misfits

Having too strong a company culture can actually hurt your company

Work sucks. But work is especially terrible when you’re the office outcast.

Office misfits live in “perpetual stress,” says Ryan Vogel, assistant professor of management at Penn State-Erie. Vogel has studied office misfits (his term for people whose personal values don’t coincide with their employer’s) since 2010, when he noticed their number was on the rise in the wake of the recession. With job opportunities scarce, many people were forced to take jobs at companies where they didn’t fit in, he says, and their psyches suffered. His research on how misfits handle themselves in the workplace is the subject of a new study published in the Academy of Management Journal.

Being the office oddball is especially tough now that employers place increased emphasis on “cultural fit” for personnel decisions. But outsiders provide great value. They’re the employees who come up with fresh ideas and prevent groupthink. Without them, companies would never innovate. Beyond that, it’s unrealistic to think that everyone will find (or even want) a job that fulfills them on a deep personal level. And promoting “cultural fit” is convenient rationalization for discriminatory hiring practices.

MEL spoke with Vogel about how to handle being an office misfit, whether it’s healthy to seek fulfillment in the workplace and why a strong office culture can be too much of a good thing.

What’s the psychological toll of being a misfit at work?
It drains us on a deep psychological level. We have a need for belonging and sense of community. If I’m a misfit, I feel like I don’t fit in. I don’t have good social relationships at work, and that drains me. But we also have a need to do meaningful work. Misfits are doing work that is contrary to their ideals. It’s against their true self, so they’re needs aren’t being met. It manifests in high stress, low job satisfaction and low engagement at work.

What about job performance?
It suffers. Misfits get lower evaluations from their bosses, they’re less likely to try to go above the call of duty and they’re more likely to be withdrawn from their work. They’re sitting in front of their computers just staring for half the day.

Have you ever been an office misfit?
I was an entrepreneur in the past, and it wasn’t fulfilling my needs. I don’t want to say more, but it was a very uncomfortable personal situation. As my research now shows, there are two ways I should have been dealing with that poor fit.

And what are they?
One way is on the job, and that’s “job crafting”: taking on tasks and projects you find fulfilling and meaningful and that suit your interests, and avoid what you don’t like doing. Along those lines, we can try to work with people we enjoy as much as possible, and avoid people who remind us we’re misfits.

Another facet to job crafting is psychological — reframing the importance of the job. A garbage collector, for example, doesn’t have to think of himself as just a garbage collector. He’s somebody who’s keeping the community clean, which is an important service.

But what if you can’t avoid certain colleagues or tasks?
The key to job crafting is minimizing (not eliminating) time spent on tasks and relationships that don’t correspond with your passions and strengths. The bulk of the research on job crafting has been done by Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale, who recommends employers empower their workers to become “job entrepreneurs” and create their own roles within an organization.

What about away from the job?
People can find a sense of belonging by partaking in leisure activities outside of work. This can be anything from playing in a tennis league, to going out for beers with your buddies to watch football — anything that keeps a person busy and fulfilled.

But workers, especially millennials, increasingly expect their jobs to be personally fulfilling. It seems your research suggests that emphasis is unhealthy.
I’m not going to say that having a strong organizational culture is a bad thing. There are many, many benefits to it. But if your culture is too strong, groupthink sets in and performance decreases due to stagnation.

Culturally, at the moment, we place too high of an emphasis on fitting in at work. Work isn’t the only way to be fulfilled in life and have your needs met. Our research shows there are people who are able to separate themselves from their jobs, and just go to work and do things off the job that meet those deep-seated needs.

What about Zappos, where cultural fit is the primary criterion for hiring?
I wonder if Zappos sacrifices other important considerations, such as candidate ability, when hiring. And if the industry is quickly shifting, cultural homogeneity may prevent them from adjusting quick enough to thrive.

But If the industry remains steady, and they have appropriately matched their values to it, then having everybody be a good cultural fit can be beneficial. Zappos constantly “WOWs” its customers, so its emphasis on culture seems to work.

Wouldn’t it be preferable for misfits to just find a new job that does meet their personal needs?
If people prioritize fitting in with a company, then yes. But there are other considerations, like pay. Some people are willing to sacrifice their values and work for a tobacco firm if it pays significantly better than working for Greenpeace. For others, value fit isn’t a top priority. If you look at recent college grads, they might not know what they value in life yet, so they’re just looking for a job.

Value congruence evolves over the course of an individual’s career. And for many, it doesn’t become an issue until they either work at a company that’s a great fit, or a bad one.

What value, if any, do misfits bring to an organization?
When you have misfits, you don’t become stagnant. Your organization doesn’t become of one mentality. If that happens and your industry changes, you can’t adapt because everyone thinks one way. Misfits have different values and can bring different ideas to the fold, however.

Should misfits embrace their roles as outsiders, then?
There is a psychological need for uniqueness. But at the same time, it feels good to be around people who share our values and worldview. I couldn’t imagine being the lone Democrat in an office full of Republicans right now, for instance. That person could provide the devil’s advocate position, but it would pretty draining to do that every day.

What’s the ideal ratio of people who drink the Kool-Aid and misfits?
Research hasn’t empirically examined the perfect mix of fitters/non-fitters, but only admitted that a mix is more ideal than an organization where everybody thinks the same way.

What can companies do to better identify and embrace misfits?
You can’t just look at people and see whether they’re a misfit. Managers need to understand who their employees are at their core, and let them craft their job in a way that makes work meaningful for them.