FacebookFacebook icon TwitterTwitter icon LinkedInLinkedIn icon Email
Diversity Chameleon

Human Resources

Why the workplace chameleon is a paradox for diversity and inclusion

Published 3 September 2021 in Human Resources • 6 min read

Do employees need to be like chameleons to survive certain corporate cultures, despite the best efforts of diversity and inclusion initiatives?


When international flights were commonplace a few years ago, George Shinkle, Associate Professor in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School, recalls meeting a high-level lawyer from Detroit on a work trip in the US. A/Prof. Shinkle struck up a conversation with the lawyer and, being an academic with a keen interest in career choices and occupational drivers, they got to talking about the lawyer’s work and what it was really like.

“He was a really nice person,” A/Prof. Shinkle recalls. However, working in certain areas of practice (such as litigation and criminal law) often requires individuals to be hard-nosed and aggressive – which presented somewhat of a career conundrum for this lawyer. A/Prof. Shinkle quizzed him on this and how he managed this career conundrum on both a personal and professional level. “He said that he was a dolphin, but that every day he had to put on a shark suit – because his job required that he swim with the sharks,” A/Prof. Shinkle recalls.

This kind of career conundrum is something that many people face on a daily basis. And there are benefits – as well as downsides – to how people choose to manage this occupational challenge. One study found 72 per cent of people said they are authentic at work and a further 80 per cent believe being authentic and showing their true selves improves the workplace. However, employees varied in the extent to which they showed their true selves and 1 in 10 employees believed showing their true selves was potentially detrimental, as they worked in environments where differences were not appreciated, conformity was emphasized, and acknowledging stress or emotion was frowned upon.

Becoming a chameleon at work

For employees who opt to stay in these roles and work environments, this leads to employees needing to “blend in” – or become organisational chameleons, as it were. Jessica Yustantio, a PhD graduate from the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School, believes this is more common than most people realise. “I was first introduced to the chameleon concept when I attended a panel discussion of diversity leaders,” she recalls.

“One of the speakers attributed their success as a female, racial minority leader with the strategy of being a ‘chameleon’ – where she changed and adapted to her environment to survive. This includes, going out to the pub on Fridays for a beer (even when she did not like the taste of beer) and watching the footy on a Saturday night (even when she prefers to be somewhere quiet reading a book). She did this all the while to be able to make conversation with her colleagues and her boss come Monday morning. As pitying as it may seem, this strategy worked as she eventually did get promoted to CEO of the company some years later as the board saw her as ‘one of them.”

Understandably, she is not alone as this “blending in” is a very common occurrence, according to Dr Yustantio: “everyone at some point goes through the same process that seems normal and straightforward; force yourself to be a chameleon in the first years of the job to fit into your organizational environment, and through process of socialization, you eventually blend in with its people, culture, values and group identity.”

Social Distancing in the workplaceResearch has found 80 per cent of employees believe being authentic and showing their true selves improves the workplace.

Diversity and inclusion

The concept of being a chameleon at work raises a number of interesting questions around diversity and inclusion – the ideal of which has been to allow individuals to bring their authentic selves to work. Forcing people to blend or “fit in” also leads to in-group bias that sabotages the crux of being diverse and inclusive in teams.

However, most inclusion efforts have not explicitly and rigorously addressed the pressure to conform that prevents individuals from realizing that ideal, according to one study. With 3129 respondents and a mix of ages, genders, races/ethnicities and orientations from different levels of seniority within their organizations, the study drew on the concept of “covering” – a coin termed by sociologist Erving Goffman to describe how individuals with known stigmatized identities made a “great effort to keep the stigma from looming large”.

Diversity and Inclusion in the workplaceMost inclusion efforts have not addressed the pressure to conform that prevents individuals from realizing that ideal

The study found 61 per cent of respondents reported “covering” along at least one axis at work, including 83 per cent of LGBTIQ+ individuals, 79 per cent of African Americans, 67 per cent of women of color, 66 per cent of women, and 63 per cent of Hispanics. The study also found 45 per cent of straight white men – who have not been the focus of most inclusion efforts – reported covering.

Why people feel the need to blend in

“This need to blend in seems to develop very early on, as we imply it in our first job interview where we look for candidates who have (or at least appear to have) a good company ‘fit’,” says Dr Yustantio.

“This means that the individual coming to an organization will have to adapt to the existing organization – its culture, values and behavior of its people. Like a chameleon, as workers, we are required to change and adapt in the environment we are in to survive in the job, to attain recognition from our boss and get promoted.”

Socialization in the workplace also plays an important role in career promotion and progression, and Dr Yustantio says many aspire to this by attaining some similarity with others in the workplace. “It can be expected that we want to reach a certain level of similarity with others we work with – particularly important figures like our boss in order to gain their liking and support for favorable performance evaluations,” she says.

“When you can assimilate and be seen as part of a group, this assimilation builds trust from other members of the group. It is this ‘in-group, out-group’ mentality that forces individuals to see out-group members as different and a threat, and those in-group members who are similar to you as more trustworthy and viewed more favorably.”

Implications and problems associated with chameleon workers

It may be beneficial for organizations to hire “chameleon” workers for in the short run, with reduced conflict among teams in which people appear to be getting along well because they are alike and can adapt well with the existing environment. However, Dr Yustantio says there are certainly problems associated with this in the long run, particularly in pro-diversity organizational environments.

Socialization in the workplace also plays an important role in career promotion and progression

“The problem with being a chameleon is that you are constantly working to be accepted into your environment – and this acceptance arguably is not for who you are, but how well you can blend in with the group. As people make up organizations, we are essentially blending into an environment created by the values and identity held of others,” says Dr Yustantio.

“For some employees, particularly those coming from a minority background, blending in or fitting in like a chameleon can require a process of completely changing one’s character to be congruent with the leader prototype of the organization. For example, to get promoted into a room full of white male leaders, you need to be like one too, because this is the environment that has already been set up.”

An unfortunate outcome of this scenario can be an identity crisis. “This could particularly be the case where minorities cannot change their surface level (gender, race) characteristics, and this can often force changes to deep level (personality, values, beliefs) characteristics of the individual that requires them to juggle multiple identities in the workplace,” says Dr Yustantio.

“Having a diverse and inclusive workforce requires an acceptance of our differences – particularly of demographic characteristics including age, gender and race. The evolving working world where we are pushing for diversity and inclusion therefore questions whether being a chameleon is sustainable for a truly diverse organizational environment.”

This article is republished with permission from UNSW BusinessThink, the knowledge platform of UNSW Business School. You may access the original article here.  


George Shinkle

George Shinkle

AGSM Fellow, Associate Professor, School of Management and Governance

School of Management and Governance - PhD, Purdue University | MBA, Ball State University | BSc Mechanical Engineering, Purdue University


Jessica Yustantio

Sessional Academic and PhD graduate, School of Management and Governance

School of Management and Governance


Learn Brain Circuits

Join us for daily exercises focusing on issues from team building to developing an actionable sustainability plan to personal development. Go on - they only take five minutes.
Read more 

Explore Leadership

What makes a great leader? Do you need charisma? How do you inspire your team? Our experts offer actionable insights through first-person narratives, behind-the-scenes interviews and The Help Desk.
Read more

Join Membership

Log in here to join in the conversation with the I by IMD community. Your subscription grants you access to the quarterly magazine plus daily articles, videos, podcasts and learning exercises.
Sign up

You have 5 of 5 articles left to read.