We all really want to be special

by Bee Heller
February 28, 2017

I’ve just got back from a holiday with my sister visiting our brother in Japan. After arriving in Tokyo (where my brother lives) we flew almost immediately to Akita – a rural prefecture in north western Honshu (Japan’s main island). Akita has very limited international tourism and for our week up there we found we were pretty much the only westerners enjoying the spectacular snowy landscape, hot springs and local winter festivals. We attracted attention everywhere we went – particularly from school children who wanted to practice their english on us.

After a week we returned to Tokyo and, despite Japan being one of the most mono-cultural countries in the world, it felt very different being back in this international city. Nobody batted an eyelid at us and we were conscious of many other foreign faces around us. While cycling around on our last afternoon, my sister turned to me and said: “I don’t feel special anymore!”.

Standing out can make us feel uncomfortable. I’ve previously argued that one of our primary motivations is to fit in and feel like we belong to the groups around us. So why did we lament the loss of our ‘specialness’ on returning to Tokyo? While we have a strong social motivation to fit in, we also want to feel significant and special. Here are just three reasons why we have a desire to stand out.

1. People who don’t conform can be perceived as higher status and more competent

Research has shown that people who don’t conform or who stand out in unique ways are perceived as having higher status and being more competent. For example, someone who wears red sneakers with a suit to give a presentation in a corporate environment or a hoodie to pitch for investment on Wall Street is perceived to be confident, knowledgeable and highly regarded in their field.

2. Going against the crowd gives people confidence

In a study by Francesca Gino, employees were asked to behave in nonconforming ways – to speak up if they disagreed with a colleague’s decision or express what they actually felt rather than what they thought they were expected to feel. Another group of employees were asked to behave in conforming ways – to go along with all decisions, to do what they thought was expected of them. A final group were told to continue working together as they usually did to act as a control. After three weeks the nonconforming group reported feeling more confident and engaged in their work than both the other groups.

3. Being able to express themselves authentically makes people more engaged and committed to their organisations

In a study by Dan Cable and Virginia Kay newly employed MBA students who made an effort to be themselves at work, were more satisfied with their jobs and more committed to their employer. They showed 16% more engagement than those MBA graduates who felt they were not being authentic at work. Good people management requires synthesising people’s motivation to both fit in and stand out. You want people to feel both like they belong and that they can be themselves. I would argue that people’s motivation to belong has a stronger influence on their behaviour than their desire to feel significant or special. People worry about being different in case they’ll feel like the odd one out. For this reason, managers need to put extra effort in to encouraging nonconformity. Managers need to make it ok for people to be themselves and be different; they need to help people identify the unique ways they can contribute to the group; and they need to celebrate the diversity and variety of strengths within their team. If more managers did this, perhaps we’d have more teams feeling like my sister and I did in Akita – people who, despite our obvious differences, were made to feel welcome by the local people at the same time as being celebrated for our ability to speak conversational english with school children!


As with my previous blogs in this series on intrinsic motivation (how to help people learn and progress – create the conditions for flow & we all just want to belong) HR Director and blogger, Gary Cookson has written a response to this blog based on his personal experiences.

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