Following Suit

They're pleasers. Compromisers, with no indispensable beliefs or fixed personalities. Flashing a trusty grin, they may seem genuinely concerned—but they'll be the first to change their colors if it means an opportunity to advance. Though often criticized by those who pride themselves on sticking to their ideals, these corporate chameleons receive more promotions and hold a majority of high-level managing positions in business.

That is, if they are men.

Corporate chameleons excel at managing impressions, what Martin Kilduff calls "self-monitoring." "When buying a car, high self-monitors will be more likely to choose a sleek, expensive sports car," Kilduff explained in his soft British accent, "whereas the low self-monitors will be more concerned with what's under the hood." In an environment where the car in your parking space and the title on your letterhead define success, the image-conscious have an advantage. According to Kilduff, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Penn State, these "corporate chameleons," as he nicknamed the type, are getting ahead while their colleagues are left clinging to their ideals—and the lower rungs of the corporate ladder.

In a sample of 159 graduates (male and female) from Cornell's MBA program, whose careers were traced over eight years, Kilduff discovered that 75 percent of all promotions received by men were given to high self-monitors. Twelve percent of these chameleons reached the top of their organization, compared to the 4 percent of low self-monitors who achieved a comparable status. For women, however, the findings were quite different: Self-monitoring had no impact on the number of promotions received or on the level attained within the company.

Kilduff attributes the apparent success of the male chameleons to their ability to adopt the personality of a specific role model. Constantly asking themselves, "What does this situation want me to be and how can I be that person?", high self-monitors mold themselves to fit the job. They also maintain flexibility and make little investment in relationships, allowing them more freedom to take cross-company promotions or change locations for a higher level job. This lack of loyalty is often questioned by the public (60 percent of whom can be classified as low self-monitors), which explains why politicians, with their firm handshakes, smooth speeches, and well-pressed suits, are so heavily criticized.

red card of man with three faces

"Bill Clinton can be seen as sort of the epitome of high self-monitors," said Kilduff. "He is attacked by the public and accused of not standing for anything, being flighty, or saying anything to please a particular audience, as if he's morally reprehensible, but from his point of view, he's just trying to be himself." On the other end of the self-monitoring spectrum, Kilduff mentioned Mario Cuomo and his reluctance to break his word to New Yorkers by running for president. Cuomo's indecisiveness is typical of low self-monitors faced with conflicting values.

More concerned with the freedom to pursue work compatible to their own interests, rather than what is prestigious and well-defined, low self-monitors may find themselves somewhat unsuited for the business realm. There are exceptions. Kilduff mentioned Bill Gates as a low self-monitor, citing Gates's desire to stay out of the spotlight. Entrepreneurs often find it beneficial to have that stubborn, focused personality rather than the ostentatious, image-conscious style of high self-monitors. Kilduff says, "They insist on being themselves despite social expectations, and succeed on their own. They view self-monitoring as a bargain with the devil. Many low self-monitors don't want to play the game; they prefer to be opinionated, somewhat ornery, and stay where they are."

Ajay Mehra, a graduate student working with Kilduff, is focusing his research on these low self-monitors. "There's a prototype out there for a successful financier, and it's not the Joe Paterno type," said Mehra. "Being true to your beliefs and speaking your mind may be detrimental to your career."

Yet Mehra speculates he will find advantages to having low self-monitors in business. By examining the relationships between people in specific companies, he expects to discover that low self-monitors are vital to intra-corporation interactions. "Lows are making waves—the innovators. They are more likely to change the job to fit them, or perform well in poorly defined roles," remarked Mehta. Low self-monitors are more successful at forming small, tight social "trust" groups, whereas the highs are universalists who bridge the gaps between groups.

Self-monitoring, despite its impact on men in business, had no effect on the success of women, Kilduff found. High and low self-monitoring women were promoted with equal frequency in Kilduff's study (5.5 percent of each type received promotions), but none reached the top of their organizations—a finding which reinforces the idea of the "glass ceiling." Despite the growing numbers of women managers, women are not reaching the top, according to Kilduff, and those who try are met with a "storm of abuse" from the public.

Women graduating from MBA programs such as Cornell's have been trained to be aggressive businesswomen, Kilduff says. But with the limited number of female role models to emulate, many, especially high self-monitors, are lost. Adopting a type of masculine persona—the able-bodied Wonder Woman who can hold her own in a male world—is no more successful for these professionals than using the coy, typically feminine tactics of a Marilyn Monroe, Kilduff found. On the other hand, many high self-monitoring men, eager to take their place as the Rambo of Wall Street, find themselves adopting the type of masculinity exhibited by their ruthless, dynamic male heroes. According to Kilduff this macho identity, which he calls "hegemonic masculinity," is exemplified by "corporate chieftains such as Ted Turner and Jack Welch, the ruthless heroes of boardroom battles.

"There is no model of femininity that holds for women the position held by the hegemonic masculinity among men," said Kilduff. "High self-monitors are very good at figuring out what it takes to make a success out of the careers they're in. The fact that women with these traits are still unable to reach the top is testament to their confusion." Such women, Kilduff speculated, may have to wait for a self-directed low self-monitor to blaze a trail—a woman who can set the tone for other women who also want to be the boss.

Until then, he suggested, business will remain the domain of the high self-monitoring male. Following suit may be more important than following ideals for those who want to be successful. And until the low self-monitors and women of the business world find their own way, the person seated at the head of the boardroom table will almost certainly be the man who is wearing the right shade of gray.

Martin Kilduff, Ph.D., is associate professor of organizational behavior in the Smeal College of Business Administration, 424 Beam Bldg., University Park PA 16802; 814-865-9822; Ajay Mehra is a graduate student in the Smeal College; 423 Beam; 865-6651;

Last Updated May 01, 1998