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Corporate chameleons:
Schmoozers are losers

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(CNN) -- We all know them. Those slippery workplace chameleons who seem to change and adapt their behavior for each boss, manager or situation. Although it may seem that these glad-handers always get ahead, a new study to be published later this year says that schmoozers are in fact, losers.

"In work organizations, people who move into 'go-between' positions -- connecting otherwise disconnected people and groups -- tend to be rated as better performers than others."

graphic Do you have a corporate chameleon where you work?

Nope. My workplace is a reptile-free zone.
I'd have said no, but now that you mention it, one co-worker is being awfully helpful, starting to eat bugs ...
Green, scaly (and that tail) -- running around doing everything. Yeah, we have a big one.
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That's Martin Kilduff, co-author of the study and professor of management at Pennsylvania State University's Smeal College of Business Administration. His research indicates that chameleons tend to move into these go-between positions, and in turn, are rated as better performers. Although this sounds positive for climbing the corporate ladder, his research also shows that they're given more projects than they can handle -- and this may ultimately hurt them in the end.



Kilduff and his colleagues studied how social networks affect performance by focusing on friendship and work-flow relations at a 116-member high-tech company.

The self-monitored data were collected using a questionnaire that was sent to all employees (68 men and 48 women). The true-false questions included phrases such as "I would probably make a good actor" and, "In different situations with different people, I often act like very different people."

From previous research, Kilduff says he had determined that depending on their personalities, people could be divided up into two categories he calls "high self-monitors" and "low self-monitors."

graphic What role, if any, do you think management plays -- or should play -- in the phenomenon of a corporate chameleon? If that employee is likely to burn out, shouldn't management intervene and stop the worker from taking on too big a load?Or does management benefit from chameleons on staff?

"High self-monitors like to be in the limelight," he says. "They deflect the blame and take credit for the successes. To carry that out, the high self-monitors tend to pay attention to people's social situation, what the appropriate thing to say is and how to dress."

That's where the chameleon quality kicks in. High self-monitors use their flexible identities to play different roles in different groups, according to the study's results.

Low self-monitors on the other hand, are more focused on their own thoughts and beliefs. They like to be with the same groups of people who know them well.

"They have more opinions and stick to their guns," says Kilduff. "Low self-monitors have no trouble figuring out what type of person they are, or should be."



Kilduff says he also knew from prior research that these high self-monitors, or chameleons, appear to get ahead because of their social usefulness. They move into the go-between position and allow access to groups of people who would otherwise be disconnected from each other.

"High self-monitors who move into bridging positions are quite crucial for bringing information together and getting ahead," says Kilduff.

Good examples of social usefulness are all around. For instance, Sally works in the employee travel department. She wouldn't usually know what was happening with the big account in public relations except for the fact that Bob from the mail room has friends in each department and passes the skinny between each group. Because Bob has a foot in many camps, he can choose to either transfer, manipulate, or keep the information to himself. This puts him in a very favorable social position.

These chameleons may change their colors to adapt to their work environments; but the research says that, in the end, they'll be blue -- when they burn out and lose their jobs.

So Bob becomes the chameleon serving Sally with information as he goes from role to role around the building. And this is exactly what Kilduff says he suspected -- that chameleons who move into the go-between positions become rated as higher performers by their supervisors.

But what Kilduff and his Penn State associates didn't expect to find was that because of their superstar status, high self-monitors can't say "no" to projects and assignments.

Martin Kilduff
Martin Kilduff  

"They may have access to more people and information, but it increases the amount of people depending on them," says Kilduff. "They become bogged down in all sorts of projects."

In trying to stretch themselves too thin, they often end up defeating their original purpose. The chameleons take on more work than they can handle -- switch colors too frequently, wear too many guises. In some cases, they may not even be the best people for the job. But, because of their social connections and inability to say no, they're given assignments anyway.

Although many of us may be able to point out chameleons in our work areas, others may not be aware of them. Kilduff says they make up no more than 40 percent of the work force. And that may be because chameleons take on so much that for all their seeming facility for agile,multifaceted interaction, they eventually fail.

These chameleons may change their colors to adapt to their work environments; but the research says that, in the end, they'll be blue -- when they burn out and lose their jobs.


Employee reviews: Do they work?
January 23, 2001
The egos among us: Corporate climbing
November 29, 2000

Penn State's Smeal College of Business Administration

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