A new study argues that ‘people in social class transitions’ – people who move from one socioeconomic class to another during their lifetime – bring a unique and valuable skill set to the workplace.
“People who transition between classes can learn to relate to others in a more skilled way, and they are incredibly useful in groups, as they can include people from all walks of life,” said Sean Martin, professor. at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, co-author of the new study. “However, it can also be an exhausting and even isolating experience for that person.”
Martin and his co-author, Stéphane Côté, professor at the University of Toronto, described the different experiences of people in social class transition and the “cultural toolbox” they acquired in an article accepted by the Academy of Management Review.
They drew on previous research to explain how the direction of a person’s transition (up or down), the pace of the transition, and time spent in new environments impacted behavior.
The research seemed personal to Martin, who started life in what he describes as the lower middle class and attended schools that were later closed when they failed to meet basic performance levels. His parents rose through the ranks in their own careers, the family quickly shifted from one social class to another, and Martin himself eventually made his way to college and earned a doctorate from a school in the Ivy League, Cornell University.
“It was a combination of hard work and structural opportunities that I had that others didn’t have,” he said. “I felt very lucky and lucky, but I also quickly realized that I didn’t know all the rules among all of the people I was in.”
He recalls being intrigued by the sophisticated recruiting process used by elite colleges and showing up to events in the “wrong” attire when apparently everyone knew exactly what to wear.
“I almost felt like I was doing an exchange abroad, studying in a new country,” he said. “Honestly, I still feel that sometimes. “
However, as Martin argues in the article, this sense of displacement can be an asset, as it adds to what he and Côté call a “cultural toolbox”.
Just as expats learn the social skills they need to adapt to a different country, people who enter a different social class acquire the tools to adapt to these environments and become more adept at building relationships with them. different groups of people.
The effect appears to be more pronounced in those who have made larger transitions. In a set of empirical data testing their arguments, Martin found evidence that those who made the most important transitions also appear to be the most culturally savvy, as they acquired more and more tools while crossing. several social classes.
The timing and direction of the transition – up or down – is also important. According to their article, people who move up may be more likely to expand and use their cultural toolbox, while those who move down may be less likely, possibly as a form of self-preservation. Likewise, those who start their upward trajectory in childhood are likely to adapt more easily than those who start later in adulthood.
In the workplace, people in social class transitions can use the tools they have acquired to “target” particular groups, adopting ways or customs so as to be seen as members, write Martin and Côté. They can also “go through”, drawing on their unique experiences to bridge two different groups, or “mix”, sharing their experiences to help promote a more inclusive and culturally sensitive workplace.
These abilities can make transitioners very valuable employees, as they can “connect with people from various categories of diversity to improve the quality of relationships, enable the flow of information among group members, improve coordination and reduce conflicts between group members, ”write Martin and Côté.
However, these skills have drawbacks.
“It’s wonderful to have a person who can understand people from all walks of life, but for them it can be exhausting and even socially isolating,” said Martin.
As a result, some people in social class transition may choose not to use their unique skills or try to hide their background, especially if other factors such as race and gender may affect how they are viewed. .
Martin hopes his article will help both people in social class transitions and their employers see their unique worth and better understand how class and socioeconomic status can affect workplace dynamics.
“Elite companies tend to hire people from privileged backgrounds whether they like it or not, and hopefully this might shed some light on how this might negatively affect performance,” he said. -he declares.