The Good and the Bad of Flocking Together

There is an intimidation factor of being in a group where you don’t feel you belong.

There is an old idiom that says “birds of a feather flock together.” This statement is based upon the belief that people with similar interests and goals usually gravitate toward one another. There is probably a lot of truth to this statement, but I wonder what the effects are when like minds gather together.

Some other people have been wondering about this as well. In 2011, Josh Lerner, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Ulrike M. Malmendier from UC Berkeley published With a Little Help from My (Random) Friends: Success and Failure in Post-Business School Entrepreneurship.

The study focuses key factors that make or break entrepreneurs in business. It took advantage of the fact that the Harvard Business School is structured in sections — first year classes where students take all their courses together. So, if you were in these classes, you sat next to the same 90 people, in the same classroom, every day for nine-months while the professors rotate in and out.

In this type of setting, here is what Lerner and Malmendier found:

“The peers that you have in those sections end up making a big difference in terms of whether you become an entrepreneur, and also what the outcomes of the ventures are. In particular, the more entrepreneurial peers — the people who had entrepreneurial experience prior to business school — that you have in your section, the less likely you are to become an entrepreneur, which was initially very surprising and the reverse of what we expected.

But then when we looked more carefully at what the outcomes were, we saw that the more entrepreneurial peers you had in your section, the less likely you were to be an unsuccessful entrepreneur. In actuality, you were as likely, or even more likely, to be a successful entrepreneur.”

So, the study hints at two things:

  • If you aren’t an entrepreneur yet, you are less likely to become one if you’re surrounded by entrepreneurs
  • If you are surrounded by entrepreneurs and you become one, you are more likely to be successful in your pursuits.

These findings tell me that there is an intimidation factor of being in a group where you don’t feel you belong. It also suggests that if you do feel a sense of inclusion in your group, you are more likely to be successful, perhaps through the support and guidance that comes from working with your peers.

As we all move forward in our careers, it’s good to remember the significant impact that our peer group has on our personal success or failure. Who we are hanging out with really does reflect back upon us as a positive or negative force in our own career development.