Navigate Barriers Using the In Group / Out Group Principle

A successful career progression strategy is governed by the perception of whether you are part of the “in-group” or “out-group”.

I have observed that clients find it more difficult to adopt successful career strategies and breakdown barriers to success if they adopt an “us/them” mentality.  Typical examples include Men vs. Women; Whites vs. Professionals of Color; Management vs. Labor; or Technical vs. Creatives.  While differences do matter, the emotions, coupled with negative past experiences, can get in the way of job success.

I use the in group / out group language purposefully to focus the conversation.  My goal is to provide the tools to progress no matter the situation.  Knowing if colleagues imagine you are part of the in group, or if you are perceived as an outsider is a key element for creating your development strategy.

If you are viewed as part of the In Group – then the best strategy for career progression is to focus on the stated culture.  If you are viewed as part of the Out Group – the best career development strategy is to focus on the unstated culture.

The first step is to understand the stated culture.  Culture represents the core purpose, values, and beliefs that determine how people interact and get things done within an organization.  To discover your culture, think about the following dimensions:

  1. Innovation / Risk – do you work in a high-risk environment or is risk-taking discouraged? Is your company known for innovation and/or leading the industry, or being a follower?
  2. Outcome / Performance – do people focus more on achievement (the what), or process (the how)?
  3. People / Values – what values and behaviors are most respected?
  4. Work /Competition – is work organized around teams or individuals? How competitive is the work environment?

The stated culture can be found in annual reports, senior leader messages, website descriptions of the organization, and company slogans.  It is shared and promoted during new hire orientations and employee development training.

For in group employees, the fastest path to success is the stated culture.  It’s that simple when combined with superior performance.  You will be recognized and appreciated for exemplifying the stated culture.

For out group members it is more complicated.  You must acknowledge the stated culture and uncover the unstated culture.  What assumptions, filters, and biases are part of the organization?

To discover the unstated culture, think about the following dimensions:

  1. Identity Assumptions – what assumptions do people have about your identity group, not you individually? For example, you may be a successful female finance leader, but in general people at the organization believe men are better finance leaders.
  2. Filter Assumptions – what are the “I’ve Heard…” assumptions in your company? I’ve heard examples include a) technical leaders are not creative; b) women don’t take risks; c) customers won’t be comfortable with African Americans; or d) international leaders can’t understand the complexities of doing business in our country.
  3. Positive Bias Assumptions – what types of people, areas and backgrounds are most likely to succeed in your organization? Look for the patterns.

If you are in the out group, you must proactively address the unstated culture in action and communication.  The primary tool is to link the word you want in people’s minds with your actions.

Example – Wellness Officer at an Engineering Firm

As a wellness officer, you are responsible for promoting the well-being of all employees.  Your work is perceived as “touchy-feely” compared to the engineers’.  As such, you soon develop the image of being nice and helpful, but not strategic and important.  In response you want to be seen as strategic, analytical, and gutsy to succeed in the company.  How do you change people’s minds?

The Success Formula

Use a powerful new word + show how your actions counter the unstated culture image + finish by linking the new word to your actions.

You can expand the image of what a wellness officer does.  You might say, “The role of wellness officer is strategic; it focuses on the total well-being of staff including their financial, physical, social, and psychological health.  The programs I am introducing are the result of analyzing comprehensive research on the best interventions to promote well-being.  Our firm is being gutsy by leading our industry in offering these types of programs and strategic in recognizing their contribution to our success ahead of our competitors.  I will always use an analytical and strategic approach to address concerns and capitalize on opportunities.”

If the wellness officer continues to link actions to the desired words, it will not take long before the engineers’ image of the wellness officer evolves from “touchy-feely” to “strategic, analytical, and gutsy.”

Bottom Line

Identify and follow the stated culture to get ahead.  If you are a member of the in crowd this may be enough.  If you are perceived as an outsider, counter assumptions, filters, and biases by highlighting your accomplishments and linking your actions to powerful words that de-bunk the stereotypes.

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