Getting promoted early in one’s career is also critically important in shaping corporate and business careers, an issue for which chameleons shine. Northwestern’s James Rosenbaum found years ago that “mobility in the earliest stage of one’s career bears an unequivocal relationship with one’s later career.” His data revealed dramatic differences between those promoted in the first few years of their career and those not promoted. But he made no suggestions about the behaviors or personality variables that enabled a person to get promoted and get ahead.
Chameleons get ahead
The research conclusions about chameleons and early promotion are absolutely fascinating—and also frustrating for many. Initially, what’s obvious is that chameleons—the high self-monitoring people who know how to manage impressions—do exceptionally well in business. The differences, of course, are between the high self-monitors, who are especially attuned to role expectations, and low self-monitors, who insist on being themselves despite social expectations.
High self-monitors ask “who does this situation want me to be and how can I be that person?” Low self-monitors, in contrast, ask “who am I and how can I be me in this situation?”
High self-monitors are more likely to resolve conflicts through collaboration and compromise. They are better than the rest in rationalizing their actions when faced with project failure. And they are particularly willing and capable of fashioning an image to match the position in which they hope to be promoted. High self-monitors are very context oriented in their decision making, while low self-monitors are principle oriented.
Furthermore, high self-monitors are far more pragmatic in their approach to relationships. In contrast, low self-monitors are more committed and principled, even in their relationships. They invest emotionally in work relationships so that they can be themselves—displaying their attitudes and traits for all to see.
Even more, high self-monitors are less committed to their current work friends and local networks than low self-monitors. They are far more flexible about the possibility of forming new relationships elsewhere. Inevitably, they are also more likely to change employers.
In sum, high self-monitoring professionals--chameleon-like professionals--are far more like to be successful in the managerial market place and also tend to be better paid.
But do high self-monitoring professionals perform better?
Yes and no. If you think about this question from the standpoint of task versus context, the answers differ. If you’re thinking of performance from the perspective of the technical issues, the answer is no. High self-monitoring professionals don’t necessarily perform better than the low self-monitoring. Impression management has no relation to technical performance.
In contrast, if you’re thinking about performance in contextual activities such as communicating with others, adapting their behavior to better communicate and cooperate with others, relating to the needs of a diverse group of people and managing others, then high self-monitors can perform much better.
Previous research has also found that high self-monitors are more active in searching for information about potential employers and in analyzing their own interests and abilities. Furthermore, these chameleons rely more on their social networks when making career decisions. This greater openness to external information enables high self-monitors to make better personal decisions about opportunities and career promotion. Of course, it also makes them more difficult to retain than low self-monitors, who tend to pursue work solely on the basis of their technical interests.
As a result of long term research, studies show that chameleons and low self-monitoring professionals don’t change their attributes over their entire career. In my consulting business, I was often asked for a thumbnail sketch of a person so that the manager could figure out whether an individual could perform a more complex job. The follow up question ought to be about whether the person was actually interested in that job. You learn pretty quickly that lots of people can perform very well in a job, but just aren’t at all interested in the job.
Of course, if an individual is chameleon-like and also has great technical skills for his job--and loves that job--the world his oyster. He’s in a position to get all the opportunities that life can offer.