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Organizational Reference Groups: A Missing Perspective on Social Context


  • Barbara S. Lawrence

    () (Anderson Graduate School of Management, University of California Los Angeles, 110 Westwood Plaza, Box 951481, Los Angeles, California 90095-1481)


This paper introduces and empirically explores the concept of an organizational reference group: the set of people an individual perceives as belonging to his or her work environment that defines the social world of work in which he or she engages. The concept is proposed to fill a gap in studies of social context. Scholars tend only to infer, not identify, the people an individual is aware of at work. This surmise creates no problem in groups or small organizations where everyone knows everyone else. However, it becomes troublesome in large organizations where the set of people one individual discerns may vary considerably from that of another. Social network studies of large organizations examine people an individual perceives, but focus on interpersonal communication through salient relationships. They tend to neglect the many distant others who populate an individual's social context: those known only through company newsletters or office gossip, those with whom the individual never has contact, and those who carry little immediate salience. Data from a large organization are used to explore whether organizational reference groups provide distinct, useful information about individuals' perceptions of their social context at work. The findings replicate those showing individuals' preferences for similar others, but also note previously unobserved systematic differences in the composition of close associations compared to the broader ones of organizational reference groups. Distant associations are considerably more homogeneous than close ones. Moreover, the results show that organizational reference groups illuminate career referent selection and expected achievement beyond what would be learned from a typical social network analysis.

Suggested Citation

  • Barbara S. Lawrence, 2006. "Organizational Reference Groups: A Missing Perspective on Social Context," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 17(1), pages 80-100, February.
  • Handle: RePEc:inm:ororsc:v:17:y:2006:i:1:p:80-100

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Deborah Gladstein Ancona & David F. Caldwell, 1992. "Demography and Design: Predictors of New Product Team Performance," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 3(3), pages 321-341, August.
    2. Barbara S. Lawrence, 1990. "At the Crossroads: A Multiple-Level Explanation of Individual Attainment," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 1(1), pages 65-85, February.
    3. Elie Ofek & Miklos Sarvary, 2001. "Leveraging the Customer Base: Creating Competitive Advantage Through Knowledge Management," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 47(11), pages 1441-1456, November.
    4. Barbara S. Lawrence, 1997. "Perspective---The Black Box of Organizational Demography," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 8(1), pages 1-22, February.
    5. Barbara S. Lawrence, 1990. "Erratum to: “At the Crossroads: A Multiple-Level Explanation of Individual Attainment” (Vol. 1, No. 1, 1990)," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 1(2), pages 211-211, May.
    6. Herminia Ibarra & Martin Kilduff & Wenpin Tsai, 2005. "Zooming In and Out: Connecting Individuals and Collectivities at the Frontiers of Organizational Network Research," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 16(4), pages 359-371, August.
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    Cited by:

    1. Roxana Barbulescu, 2015. "The Strength of Many Kinds of Ties: Unpacking the Role of Social Contacts Across Stages of the Job Search Process," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 26(4), pages 1040-1058, August.
    2. Boh, Wai Fong & Wong, Sze-Sze, 2015. "Managers versus co-workers as referents: Comparing social influence effects on within- and outside-subsidiary knowledge sharing," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 126(C), pages 1-17.
    3. Ray Reagans, 2011. "Close Encounters: Analyzing How Social Similarity and Propinquity Contribute to Strong Network Connections," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 22(4), pages 835-849, August.
    4. Donald E. Gibson & Barbara S. Lawrence, 2010. "Women's and Men's Career Referents: How Gender Composition and Comparison Level Shape Career Expectations," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 21(6), pages 1159-1175, December.
    5. E. N. Bridwell-Mitchell & Theresa K. Lant, 2014. "Be Careful What You Wish For: The Effects of Issue Interpretation on Social Choices in Professional Networks," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 25(2), pages 401-419, April.
    6. Martine R. Haas & Sangchan Park, 2010. "To Share or Not to Share? Professional Norms, Reference Groups, and Information Withholding Among Life Scientists," Organization Science, INFORMS, vol. 21(4), pages 873-891, August.


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