Organizational Culture

Popularity’s Impact on Success in Organizations

When someone mentions the term “popularity” it often brings back memories of high school dances and Friday night football games – a concept from the past. However, the concept may not be so distant. “Popularity contests” are occurring in many organizations today, where the “winners” are rewarded immeasurably and the “losers” are simply overlooked.

What Is Popularity?

The term popular can be defined as “being generally accepted by one’s peers.” This concept is markedly different from liking someone, as you can develop a strong interpersonal relationship with someone, and they may not necessarily be popular. Conversely, you could generally dislike an individual; however, this individual could still be viewed as “popular” because of his or her group status. Popularity can be a result of a variety of factors including the individual’s personality and position in the overall communication network.

What Individual Characteristics Contribute to Popularity?

Individuals who are popular among coworkers often have a high core self-evaluation. This means the individual is more likely to have high self-esteem, be positive, confident, successful, and emotionally stable.  Popular individuals also tend to attribute success to their skills and abilities, rather than outside situational factors. For example, if a popular individual successfully completes a work project he may attribute this success to his knowledge of the project and the skills and abilities he used to complete the project, rather than the outside organizational factors, like guidelines for successful project completion, that aided in his success. These characteristics will often lead the individual to develop positive relationships with other individuals in the organization.

What Situational Characteristics Contribute to Popularity?

Situational factors may also play a role in how popular the individual is. It has been found that individuals who are central to the communication network in their organization are often viewed as more popular than their counterparts. This could be caused, in part, by the fact that mere exposure aids in increasing popularity. The frequent exposure to the individual could make interactions automatic and familiar. An example of this could be a secretary in the office who interacts with many employees on a daily basis. It is important to note that these factors do not operate in isolation. A secretary whom many employees are exposed to on a daily basis could be unpopular because he lacks a high core self-evaluation. Additionally, an individual could have a high core self-evaluation; however, if she never interacts with other co-workers she may not be popular.

Impact of Popularity on Success

Popular individuals in the workplace are not only viewed differently from their unpopular counterparts, they are treated differently. Popular employees are:
  • Often the recipients of more positive acts (e.g., receiving help from other employees on a project, helping when the employee is absent, etc.).
  • Less susceptible to negative acts by other coworkers (e.g., harsh comments, interpersonal threats, hindering the individual’s ability to work, etc.).

Practical Implications

Organization’s Role. Organizations should recognize it is highly probable a popularity contest is occurring, to some degree, in their workplace. Steps should be taken to ensure marginalized (“unpopular”) employees are being recognized and rewarded for their contributions to the organization in a way that is consistent with their popular counterparts, as popularity can strongly influence how individuals are treated. This can help to create a sense of fairness in the organization. Individual’s Role. “Unpopular” employees should realize there are actions that can be taken to increase popularity such as increasing communication with other employees and helping others in an altruistic way. However, being popular is not the only way to be successful. Employees should ensure that their contributions are visible and add to the overall success of the organization in order to make certain popularity status is not affecting their perceived effectiveness to the organization. Popularity is prevalent and influential in the workplace. Therefore, it is important organizations not only understand why some individuals may be considered more popular than others (high core self-evaluation and network centrality) but also attempt to mitigate the negative effects on marginalized employees.

Interpretation by:

Elizabeth Allen

The DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Scott, B. & Judge, T. (2009). The popularity contest at work: Who wins, why and what do they receive? Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 20-33.