• 17 Feb 2012
  • Working Paper

Breaking Them In or Revealing Their Best? Reframing Socialization around Newcomer Self-Expression

by Dan Cable, Francesca Gino & Brad Staats

Executive Summary — How can organizations build strong, sustainable employment relationships from the very start? To date, the socialization literature has focused on transmitting and maintaining culture so that new employees accept the organizational values and behavioral norms. Many organizations require newcomers to wear standard wardrobes, forbid personal possessions, follow detailed verbal scripts, and enforce appropriate displays of emotion all designed to hinder individuality. In two studies described in this paper, the authors found that organizational and employee outcomes were better when socialization tactics encouraged authentic self-expression of newcomers' personal identities and signature strengths. Organizational socialization is optimized when organizations start by recognizing and highlighting newcomers' unique identities at the very beginning of the employment relationship, when identity negotiation is a critical concern for both parties. Key concepts include:

  • Given the appropriate encouragement, newcomers can frame their new role and the necessary tasks as opportunities to use their personal strengths, thereby engaging with the work in a more personally fulfilling and productive manner.
  • Both organizations and their members benefit when the concepts of newcomer authenticity and self-expression are integrated into socialization processes.
  • There are surprisingly large and valuable changes in employees' quality and retention when organizations make relatively small investments in socialization practices that focus on newcomers' personal identities.
  • Perhaps the best way to develop organizational commitment is for the organization to commit to each of its individuals by highlighting and encouraging the daily use of their unique strengths.

Author Abstract

Socialization theory has focused on enculturating new employees such that they develop pride in their new organization and internalize its values. Drawing on authenticity research, we propose that socialization leads to more effective employment relationships when it starts with newcomers expressing their personal identities. In a field experiment carried out in a large business process outsourcing company, we found that socialization focused on personal identity (emphasizing newcomers' unique perspectives and strengths) led to significantly greater customer satisfaction and greater employee retention after six months, compared to (a) socialization that focused on organizational identity (emphasizing pride from organizational affiliation) and (b) the organization's traditional approach which focused primarily on skills training. To confirm causation and explore the mechanisms underlying the effects, we replicated the results in a laboratory experiment. We found that individuals working temporarily as part of a research team were more engaged and satisfied with their work, performed their tasks more effectively and were also more likely to return to work when initial socialization focused on personal rather than organizational identity. In addition, authentic self expression mediated these relationships. We call for a new direction in socialization theory examining how both organizations and employees benefit by encouraging authentic self-expression.

Paper Information