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Study Finds We're All a Bunch of Workplace Chameleons

Do you tend to act more coldly when you speak with a manager? As a manager, do you tend to act more warmly when you interact with an employee?

If so, you're not alone. Let's get smart about a new Princeton study that finds all the workplace is but a stage!

Princeton University researchers conducted four experiments to analyze stereotyping in the workplace, and how employees tend to react within workplace hierarchy. Well, if anybody would know about trying to act smarter than they are, it's our friends from the Ivy League. So, what did they learn?

The study concludes that employees, in fact, can alter their behavior based on how they feel they are being perceived. A manager, for example, might play down his or her competence to underlings in order to seem warmer (and perhaps less intimidating). An employee, meanwhile, might act colder in the presence of management in order to appear more competent.

The end result? Workplace conversations that can feel like two ships passing each other in the night! As explains:

"In terms of policy, organizations would do well to recognize these warmth-competence tradeoffs in interactions between employees of different rank, for example, in evaluations or interviews. The stereotypes people hold about others may not necessarily be true, so when they're trying to 'match' the other person, they're matching what they think the other person is like. These kinds of diverging impression management strategies may be one reason for misunderstandings or otherwise awkward situations people have in these interactions," [lead author and doctoral candidate in psychology and social policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs Jillian] Swencionis said.

Interesting. So will we play to stereotype at work, or will we fight the perceived stereotype? Will we be dumb or smart, warm or competent, caff or decaf? Luckily, it's all somewhere on the workplace interaction trade-off scale.

Why would an employee ever want to be perceived as dumb, though?

Well, if your work colleague (the one who assigns the work...) erroneously perceives you as not being among the best and brightest -- and you're happy in your current, stable position without any desire for promotion -- then playing to stereotype is an easy way to avoid having even more work added to your inbox. So while your other co-worker (the perceived "smart one") will be burning the midnight oil again, you can go for a nice, long jog on a warm, spring evening -- since you're somehow perceived as a poor fit for the most august of workplace projects.

It's all in how you look at it, and where you want to be at work. And where you want to be right now is having a relaxed dinner on your back deck while watching a beautiful sunset, right? Smart move.**

Or we can simply decide to be ourselves at work, warts and all. Authentic, tell-it-like-it-is personas are definitely trending, if our presidential primary season is any indication. You work with some really great people, don't you?

** Sorry if I've just blown your workplace cover, smartypants. Your secret is safe with me. Enjoy the sunset!


  1. Two or three decades ago, people were expected to assume a certain persona based on their position and (perceived) abilities. Now authenticity seems to be the workplace trend - which also has it pros and cons.


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