They are leaders of companies and teams. They assert fierce individuality, ignore conventional approaches, and don’t do what they are told. They are the company’s hardest leaders to manage but also good for the company’s bottom line.
Throughout our careers we are told to blindly conform to the status quo, to fit in, and get along with others. Leaders whose behavior is to the contrary are labeled troublemakers, and their behavior is noted on performance reviews.
This article highlights a study by Francesca Gino, Harvard Business School professor, who recently conducted a series of surveys exploring conformity in the workplace. Her findings surveying 2,000 employees showed almost half the participants reported working in organizations where they regularly feel the need to conform. More than half said that people in their organizations never question the status quo. I’d like to explore three of the six strategies her study reveals for encouraging constructive and healthy non-conformity in organizations.
As a lifelong rebel, I was impressed by Gino’s research. Many of my clients have shared with me their version of challenging workplace status quo and I wondered, what if everyone constructively rebelled at work, introducing new approaches without causing destructive chaos?
In today’s business environment, we are probably seeing the conformity pendulum swinging closer to the center, with more organizations changing the way they think about conformity.
1. Gino points to the shame that such giants of industry as Borders, BlackBerry, Polaroid, and Myspace, “once had winning formulas but didn’t update their strategies until it was too late”. They failed to have the insight to know WHEN to move away from the status quo, and not take a wait and see attitude.
The rebel leaders who freely engage in constructive non-conformity ‘play to WIN’ in business, unafraid to take calculated risks that make game changing business decisions. One effective strategy of rebel leaders is constructively questioning the status quo and encouraging their employees to do the same. This can help reignite the business’s pursuit in reaching goals and give employees a reason to stay engaged. Organizations that encourage their leaders to challenge existing practices, asking “why” and “what if”, expand possibilities and generate options.
If these aforementioned companies had applied this strategy, would it have served as a warning system for management that its current business model or processes needed significant retooling to stay relevant – and profitable?
2. Fostering a broader perspective, says Gino, is another strategy for pushing the status quo, enabling employees to view problems from different angles.
According to Gino’s findings, disagreeing with a colleague’s decision by offering a different approach or perspective, can spark new ideas and innovation and “enhance a person’s standing more than conformity can”. Her study pointed out that “a keynote speaker who wears red sneakers, a CEO who makes the rounds of Wall Street in a hoodie and jeans, and a presenter who creates her own PowerPoint template rather than using her company’s” were judged by observers as having higher status than counterparts who conform to business norms. I believe you would agree with me that being exposed to different viewpoints readily fosters different perspectives and more viable solutions.
3. The challenge of leaders, notes Gino, is “learning to balance conformity with non-conformity in a team based environment…” Yet the challenge remains in finding a reasonable balance to promote effective performance. On one hand, a lack in conformity will spur the team to become single individuals creating their own agenda and away from shared goals. Strict and inflexible conformity promotes harsh guidelines that limit taking the initiative to inspire new ideas.
You know from your own experience that both comparisons lead to ineffective performance. But a good balance of both leads to teams that are aligned with leadership and shared goals that are more productive and effective.
Leaders seeking to balance conformity with non-conformity must be open to a positive reciprocal relationship where both leaders and team benefit. Applying the third strategy of encouraging dissenting viewpoints broadens our perspectives, challenges our beliefs, and questions our motivations so that our actions and decisions become aligned with the team and company norms. We can then deliver on the company’s purpose and to the benefit of the organization. Gino’s study notes that “leaders shouldn’t ask, ‘Who agrees with this course of action”‘ or ‘What information supports this view.” Instead, they should ask, ‘What information suggests this might not be the right path to take?'”
Strategies for constructive workplace rebellion.
President John F. Kennedy once said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” How does his quote reflect or collide with your own opinion on the subject?
Copyright 2017 Jennifer Touma Mindscape