“Which is more important to you in building and maintaining your reputation – fitting in or standing out from the crowd?” It’s an unusual question for coaches and mentors to ask, but it can be very helpful in understanding what motivates a client towards or away from different choices.

Human beings are typically motivated by two competing desires: the fit in or conform; and to be seen as an individual. We are all on a spectrum between the extremes of these. Different societies emphasise and reward individualism or collectivism. The fast-growth in economies, such as China, while ostensibly collectivist in culture, can be attributed in large part to greater tolerance of individualism in the shape of entrepreneurialism.

In the coaching or mentoring relationship, clients can potentially make better decisions, if they understand their own drives to stand out or fit in. Some of the common characteristics of people, who have a strong need to be seen as unique include:

  • Extroversion
  • Sociability and optimism
  • Open to new experiences
  • Creative
  • Low in neuroticism
  • More satisfied with life
  • Less prone than normal to mood swings
  • Less interested than normal in other people’s opinions.

While these are generally positive or neutral traits, over-emphasising some of them can be counterproductive in terms, for example, of being seen as a team player. Being too much of a “character” suggests oddness and may be a hindrance to career momentum and to getting things done through others.

Some of the insight-provoking questions coaches and mentors can ask clients include:

  • When in this environment is it good to be seen to stand out for the crowd?
  • When is it important to conform?
  • How can you both conform and maintain your authenticity and individuality?
  • In what ways do you now express your need for individuation/ conforming? (For example, how you dress, or how you communicate through e-mails…)
  • What subtle changes in how you express your need could be more effective in achieving your goals?

In my own early career, I recall being taken aside by a mentor, who explained to me the difference between being seen positively as creative and talented, compared to as a disruptive maverick. Some of those lessons I have carried with me for the rest of my career. These included:

  • Demonstrating respect and patience with colleagues, who might not think as fast or creatively as I did
  • The importance of looking the part. (I made the tough decision to conform by having my shoulder length hair trimmed to normal length, on the basis that this was a very visible signal that I was ready for greater responsibility and promotion!)
  • Finding practical ways to align my relatively strong need for individuation with the overt and covert culture and values of the organization.

Since then, I have had similar conversations with both people who want to stand out and those who want to conform. With strong conformers, we explore the difference between being seen as a strong team player (positive) and as uninteresting and hence unexceptional (negative). One of the most powerful changes these clients can often make is to plan to make at least one highly significant and telling comment or question in every meeting they attend. The result is that they begin to construct a reputation for depth and originality of thinking.

The stand out/ fit in conversation has immense value in the early stages of a coaching or mentoring relationship, because it is so closely related to the client’s values and internal drives. Substantive behavioural change is highly dependent on this kind of self-awareness.


© David Clutterbuck, 2014

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