Believe it or not, encouraging rebels in your organisation is an important way to gain an edge over your competition. Rebels – those who feel free to express themselves and bring their authentic selves to work – challenge thinking, are more creative, and are more highly engaged than those who conform.
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 or not, 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?
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.
We make many decisions because they feel routine and safe. While there is some merit to the idea of ‘doing things as they’ve always been done,’ when they work, playing it safe can lead to stagnation. Think about the consequences faced by companies like Myspace and BlackBerry who didn’t realise the need for change until it was too late.
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 when we need to critically view information to make a good decision.
How can you promote constructive nonconformity in your business?
Nonconformity, when approached from the perspective of promoting innovation and creativity, can lend us confidence, make us more engaged and creative, and leads to higher performance. So what strategies can you implement that will encourage the growth of ‘helpful rebels’ in your business?
Let employees be themselves
Employees who feel like they can express themselves and work in ways that suit them 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 sufficient freedom to follow this through. Tell employees what you want done without giving every step to allow them the space to find the path that works best for them and solve problems as they go.
Get employees to play to their strengths
Many employees 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, and cultivated better teams. Do your best to rotate interns through various positions, and give employees freedom to choose responsibilities so that their roles play to their strengths.
Encourage employees to question conformity with you
It’s hard to stimulate people to find new ways of doing things when when ideas have stagnated, but there are some ways to get the ball rolling. Ask yourself and your employees questions such as: “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 to you. 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.
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. Ensure employees have responsibility for a variety of 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 challenging 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 certain areas are not directly related to their position, give employees training to expand their skillset and be exposed to new ideas. Finally, give employees responsibility for work that doesn’t require constant approval from bosses – this will give them pride in their own work.
Encourage employees to open their minds
Employees sometimes need to view a problem from another angle. Research has found different perspectives increase innovation, so send employees to different workstations or ask them to do work they wouldn’t normally do so they can understand each way of thinking. It is also wise to hire people from diverse backgrounds to create a pool of perspectives.
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 a simple “yes” or “no” and the room is opened to discussion. Make sure your team includes people you know will dissent, so others are aware it’s okay to do the same. You can even go so far in meetings as to ask someone to take an opposing view, just so their 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 will develop strong, driven employees capable of the true innovation you need to achieve your company’s goals.