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On good days, being a team player means cooperating and collaborating. On tough days, it can mean going along with a decision you disagree with for the greater good.
But most days, being a team player can mean something else entirely — something you haven’t considered. It can mean doing the same old work — the same old way of thinking and doing — because it just hasn’t occurred to you or your colleagues to do anything differently.
That’s the dark side of conformity and one that has big impacts for careers and businesses. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, this inclination to conform at work — a conformity you often don’t even notice — is making you less creative and engaged.
Francesca Gino, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School laid out the findings of a series of recent surveys she conducted to explore conformity in the workplace.
In a survey of 2,000 employees, almost half of participants said that they feel the need to conform, and more than half said that their workforce does not question the status quo. In a second survey, less than 10 percent of the more than 1,000 people polled said they work for companies that encourage nonconformity.
Gino explains that conformity in the workplace can manifest itself in different ways, whether it’s dressing like your colleagues or always agreeing with your supervisor as a matter of course – but she cautions that while actions like these can make us comfortable, before long, always going with the flow makes it that much tougher to come up with really innovative and disruptive ideas.
“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,” writes Gino. “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.”
So how can managers create an environment that helps their employees be their authentic selves? And how can employees take responsibility for their own creativity?
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Focus on what, not how
For bosses: Managers can start by hiring people with differing and distinctive points of view and be clear about what they want. She reminds companies to focus on what jobs need to be done, not how they should be done.
For workers: Staffers can do their part by thinking about how their own jobs could be done more efficiently or what would make them more interesting. Few bosses would balk at a solution that’s faster and better and makes a team more engaged.
Change the conversation
For bosses: One way to avoid stagnant, status quo thinking is to open up lines of communication and encourage your employees to ask questions. “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,'” explains Gino.
For workers: Assume change is possible — anything less is just status quo bias in action. While not mentioned in the report, it stands to reason that staffers should weigh in with ideas and offer their bird’s eye view on how new changes or ideas might impact them. Remember: Bosses assume you’ll tell them when something isn’t working — especially when they’ve asked — and most are open to new processes and perspectives.
Lead with your strengths
For bosses: Gino suggests encouraging employees to think about what makes them unique, and what strengths they bring to the table. Asking “how you can bring your authentic self to work?” led workers at one IT company freedom to adjust scripts when needed and made those staffers feel more engaged.
For workers: Take responsibility for your own creativity. When was the last time you asked yourself about your strengths and how you could put them to work for your own job or career? Get to work proposing ways you can showcase your talents in ways that keep you and your company competitive. You might be able to create a one-of-a-kind niche for self — winning creative freedom in the process.