Employee engagement is a problem. To fix it, encourage your workers to "break rules" and be themselves. We’ll show you who does it right and how you can too.
Throughout our careers, we are taught to conform — to the status quo, to the opinions and behaviors of others, and to information that supports our views. The pressure only grows as we climb the organizational ladder. By the time we reach high-level positions, conformity has been so hammered into us that we perpetuate it in our enterprises. In a recent survey I conducted of more than 2,000 employees across a wide range of industries, nearly half the respondents reported working in organizations where they regularly feel the need to conform, and more than half said that people in their organizations do not question the status quo. The results were similar when I surveyed high-level executives and midlevel managers. As this data suggests, organizations consciously or unconsciously urge employees to check a good chunk of their real selves at the door. Workers and their organizations both pay a price: decreased engagement, productivity, and innovation (see the exhibit “The Perils of Conformity”).
Drawing on my research and fieldwork and on the work of other scholars of psychology and management, I will describe three reasons for our conformity on the job, discuss why this behavior is costly for organizations, and suggest ways to combat it.
Of course, not all conformity is bad. But to be successful and evolve, organizations need to strike a balance between adherence to the formal and informal rules that provide necessary structure and the freedom that helps employees do their best work. The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of conformity. In another recent survey I conducted, involving more than 1,000 employees in a variety of industries, less than 10% said they worked in companies that regularly encourage nonconformity. That’s not surprising: For decades the principles of scientific management have prevailed. Leaders have been overly focused on designing efficient processes and getting employees to follow them. Now they need to think about when conformity hurts their business and allow — even promote — what I call constructive nonconformity: behavior that deviates from organizational norms, others’ actions, or common expectations, to the benefit of the organization.
WHY CONFORMITY IS SO PREVALENT
Let’s look at the three main, and interrelated, reasons why we so often conform at work.
We fall prey to social pressure. Early in life we learn that tangible benefits arise from following social rules about what to say, how to act, how to dress, and so on. Conforming makes us feel accepted and part of the majority. As classic research conducted in the 1950s by the psychologist Solomon Asch showed, conformity to peer pressure is so powerful that it occurs even when we know it will lead us to make bad decisions. In one experiment, Asch asked participants to complete what they believed was a simple perceptual task: identifying which of three lines on one card was the same length as a line on another card. When asked individually, participants chose the correct line. When asked in the presence of paid actors who intentionally selected the wrong line, about 75% conformed to the group at least once. In other words, they chose an incorrect answer in order to fit in.
Organizations have long exploited this tendency. Ancient Roman families employed professional mourners at funerals. Entertainment companies hire people (“claques”) to applaud at performances. And companies advertising health products often report the percentage of doctors or dentists who use their offerings.
Conformity at work takes many forms: modeling the behavior of others in similar roles, expressing appropriate emotions, wearing proper attire, routinely agreeing with the opinions of managers, acquiescing to a team’s poor decisions, and so on. And all too often, bowing to peer pressure reduces individuals’ engagement with their jobs. This is understandable: Conforming often conflicts with our true preferences and beliefs and therefore makes us feel inauthentic. In fact, research I conducted with Maryam Kouchaki, of Northwestern University, and Adam Galinsky, of Columbia University, showed that when people feel inauthentic at work, it’s usually because they have succumbed to social pressure to conform.
We become too comfortable with the status quo. In organizations, standard practices — the usual ways of thinking and doing — play a critical role in shaping performance over time. But they can also get us stuck, decrease our engagement, and constrain our ability to innovate or to perform at a high level. Rather than resulting from thoughtful choices, many traditions endure out of routine, or what psychologists call the status quo bias. Because we feel validated and reassured when we stick to our usual ways of thinking and doing, and because — as research has consistently found — we weight the potential losses of deviating from the status quo much more heavily than we do the potential gains, we favor decisions that maintain the current state of affairs.
But sticking with the status quo can lead to boredom, which in turn can fuel complacency and stagnation. Borders, BlackBerry, Polaroid, and Myspace are but a few of the many companies that once had winning formulas but didn’t update their strategies until it was too late. Overly comfortable with the status quo, their leaders fell back on tradition and avoided the type of nonconformist behavior that could have spurred continued success.
OF MORE THAN 1,000 EMPLOYEES SURVEYED, LESS THAN 10% SAID THEY WORKED IN COMPANIES THAT REGULARLY ENCOURAGE NONCONFORMITY.
We interpret information in a self-serving manner. A third reason for the prevalence of conformity is that we tend to prioritize information that supports our existing beliefs and to ignore information that challenges them, so we overlook things that could spur positive change. Complicating matters, we also tend to view unexpected or unpleasant information as a threat and to shun it — a phenomenon psychologists call motivated skepticism.
In fact, research suggests, the manner in which we weigh evidence resembles the manner in which we weigh ourselves on a bathroom scale. If the scale delivers bad news, we hop off and get back on — perhaps the scale misfired or we misread the display. If it delivers good news, we assume it’s correct and cheerfully head for the shower.
Here’s a more scientific example. Two psychologists, Peter Ditto and David Lopez, asked study participants to evaluate a student’s intelligence by reviewing information about him one piece at a time — similar to the way college admissions officers evaluate applicants. The information was quite negative. Subjects could stop going through it as soon as they’d reached a firm conclusion. When they had been primed to like the student (with a photo and some information provided before the evaluation), they turned over one card after another, searching for anything that would allow them to give a favorable rating. When they had been primed to dislike him, they turned over a few cards, shrugged, and called it a day.
By uncritically accepting information when it is consistent with what we believe and insisting on more when it isn’t, we subtly stack the deck against good decisions.
To be continued in Part 2: 'Promoting Constructive Non-Conformity'
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