A Harvard Survey on Leadership and Constructive Nonconformity

Strategies to help leaders encourage constructive nonconformity in their organizations and themselves.

Source: Unsplash

Where can we find the exact point where conformity is a bad thing for both an individual and a corporation? Is there any good conformity in the workplace? Where can we set a balance between following the rules of a corporation and going against them?

In a recent study from Francesca Gino at Harvard Business Review where more than 2,000 employees across different industries were interviewed, she tackled these questions and also revealed that “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.”

From her study, we can easily identify that conformity is still quite prevalent due to social pressure because we have become too comfortable with the status quo or because we interpret the information in a self-serving manner.

GOING AGAINST THE CROWD

Here is where “constructive nonconformity” plays a major role. Promoting it, employees can behave in nonconforming ways that will, therefore, lead to higher performance, creativity and promote innovation in the workplace. And for sure, this will help with reducing stress levels significantly and increase motivation.

I asked a group of employees to behave in nonconforming ways (speaking up if they disagreed with colleagues’ decisions, expressing what they felt rather than what they thought they were expected to feel, and so on). I asked another group to behave in conforming ways, and a third group to do whatever its members usually did. After three weeks, those in the first group reported feeling more confident and engaged in their work than those in the other groups. They displayed more creativity in a task that was part of the study. And their supervisors gave them higher ratings on performance and innovativeness.”

HOW TO ENCOURAGE CONSTRUCTIVE NONCONFORMITY?

Source: Unsplash

From her study, I can highlight four key ideas on how to empower a team in an organization that every leader should keep in mind:

1. Challenge your employees

When a job no longer becomes challenging and the employee falls into a boring routine, it is common to lose motivation which results in them underperforming. This will lead to negative feedback, less creativity, and even less motivation.

Promoting a variety of tasks is an option but also identifying opportunities for personal learning and growth.

2. Question the Status Quo

Here’s a very interesting example from the same study that will help understand it better:

By regularly asking employees ”why” and “what if”, Max Zanardi, for several years the general manager of the Ritz-Carlton in Istanbul, creatively led them to redefine luxury by providing customers with authentic and unusual experiences. For example, employees had traditionally planted flowers each year on the terrace outside the hotel’s restaurant. One day Zanardi asked, “Why do we always plant flowers? How about vegetables? What about herbs?” This resulted in a terrace garden featuring herbs and heirloom tomatoes used in the restaurant — things guests very much appreciated.”

3. Give employees opportunities to be themselves

This can be achieved by letting employees solve problems on their own, telling them what job needs to be done rather than how to do it and encouraging them to reflect on what makes them feel authentic.

4. Encourage employees to bring out their signature strengths

It is a demonstrated fact that when employees can express their real or authentic selves at work, they are more committed to their organization and they display a better performance, unlike people that are feeling over-controlled — or even micromanaged in some cases — by their manager or a specific group.

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