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Encourage your Employees to Rebel

A survey by Franscesca Gino of over 2,000 employees found nearly half felt they worked in places where they were strongly required to conform. Whether it’s on purpose, as workers ascend the ranks, they lose the drive to rebel. Another study of 1,000 employees found less than 10% worked in companies that encourage unconventionality.

Why do we conform?

  1. Social Pressure

    Psychologists have been able to prove that in situations of peer pressure, we can be coerced into making decisions even we know are wrong. At work, social conformity shows its face in wearing similar clothes, agreeing with managers, and kowtowing to a team’s potentially bad decision.

  2. Comfort

    There is some merit to the idea of ‘doing things as they’ve always been done,’ however many decisions we choose because they feel routine, and safe. However playing it safe can lead to stagnation, with companies like Myspace and BlackBerry not realising the need for change until too late.

  3. Self-serving

    In our minds, we select information that supports pre-existing beliefs while blocking out things that may destabilize them. “Motivated scepticism” is the term psychologists use to the describe viewing unpleasant information as a threat. This causes issues in critically viewing information to make a good decision.

Promoting Constructive Nonconformity

Observers of a keynote speaker who circumvents social norms are seen as having higher status than counterparts who conform – for example wearing a jeans and a sweatshirt to Wall Street. Nonconformity can lend us confidence, making us more engaged, creative, and in turn leading to higher performance. So what strategies can help you boost nonconformity in your business?

  1. Let employees be themselves

    Employees who feel like they can express themselves and who they are were found to be 16% more “engaged and more committed to their organisations.” In addition, teachers who expressed their authentic selves were given higher performance ratings than those who did not. You can encourage employees by asking them to do a reflection on what makes them feel authentic, and giving them a bit of freedom to follow this through. Tell employees what you want done, without giving every step, allowing them to find the path that works best for them, solving problems as they go.

  2. Get employees to play to their strengths

    Many employees perhaps don’t know what their strengths are. A research project where leaders across the globe reflected each morning on their signature strengths found the leaders were more engaged and innovative, as well as cultivating better teams. Do your best to rotate interns through various positions, or give employees freedom to choose responsibilities, so you can play to each member’s strengths.

  3. Encourage employees to question conformity with you

    It’s hard when ideas have stagnated to stimulate new ways of doing things, but there are some ways to get the ball rolling. Ask “why do we always have meetings before lunch when everyone’s hungry?” “What if we had them first thing in the morning?” “Why” and “what if” are important phrases to ask employees and encourage them to do the same. Ensure employees are aware the company isn’t perfect, and that mistakes are a given. Finally, excel at the basics: make sure employees know everything about the basic level operating, so they can question conformity from a position of knowledge.

  4. Create an environment that fosters challenge

    When employees get bored, it’s difficult to motivate creativity and inspiration. Novel behaviour triggers dopamine, which in turn motivates us to innovate. Maximise variety in an employee’s tasks to avoid stagnation. Rotate them through different positions or departments. Create novel experiences by cementing the plan for the day when employees arrive at work, or challenge them by asking them to design a product in a week. Assess individuals and identify areas where they personally can learn and grow. Even if not directly related to their position, give employees training to expand their skillset, expose them to new ideas. This stimulates engagement. Finally, give employees their own responsibility without constant approval from bosses, giving them pride in their own work.

  5. Encourage employees to open their minds

    Employees sometimes need to view a problem from other angles. Research has found different perspectives increase innovation. So send employees to different workstations, ask them to do work they wouldn’t normally do, so they can understand each way of thinking. Hire people from diverse backgrounds for a wealth of perspectives.

  6. Create a space for disagreement

    It’s easy to fall into the trap of self-selection bias, where you look for information which confirms your worldview. Start asking “why might this be the wrong way to go?” At the Chicago Board of Trade, they’ve been trained to ask open-ended questions so no one can get away with simply “yes” or “no.” This opens the room to discussion. Make sure your team includes people you know will dissent, so others are aware it’s ok to do the same. You can even go so far in meetings as to ask someone to take an opposing view, just so the reasons can inform your decision.

Not all of these strategies will work perfectly for your company, but if you strike the right balance between pushing the status quo and conformity, you can have strong, driven employees who are innovating towards your company’s goals.

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