Using Rebel Talent to combat workplace conformity
It’s all in the norm
Conformity, or adjusting our behaviour and approaches in order to align to the accepted norm, is something we have all had to endure in the workplace. From wearing clothing your organisation deems appropriate to expressing an acceptable response to certain news or information, our behaviours are influenced by these conformity encouraging norms which can either be explicit (rules that are enforceable by a formal sanction such as a code of conduct or law) or implicit (expected, acceptable behaviour defined by the members of a particular group). Whilst the formal nature of explicit norms leave little room for interpretation or deviation, one can well argue that it is the implicit norms that have a greater influence on our daily behaviour and interactions with others due to the social acceptance, approval, and security that we often experience as a result.
A study conducted by Psychologist Solomon Asch demonstrated that social pressures can be so powerful, they can cause an individual to conform against their better judgement. In the study, participants were shown a standard line and then asked to draw a comparison with three other lines in order to identify the one equal in length to the standard. It was conducted a total of 18 times, 12 of which included the involvement of actors who had been instructed to intentionally give the wrong answer. The results showed that when the participants were individually approached they were able to make a sound comparison and identify the matching line, with only 1% of responses being incorrect. When asked to make the same comparison in the presence of the actors, an average of 32% of the participants gave the wrong answer in spite of the visual evidence in front of them. The observations made across all 12 of the actor-inclusive experiments revealed that 75% of participants conformed at least once, with only 25% of them managing to avoid conforming completely.
The results of the Asch test show us the power that the need to conform can have on our critical thinking and sound decision making abilities, factors that don’t play our well in organisations where conformity is rife. A recent study conducted by Francesca Gino revealed that just under 50% of employees feel the need to conform at work, a finding consistent among mid-level managers as well as high-level executives. Whilst rules and regulations may account for a certain degree of the conformity which we exhibit on a daily basis, when those in an organisation feel pressured to conform to the point where they conceal their authentic selves it has the potential to negatively influence their innovation, creativity, and engagement. The good news is that there are remedies available for leaders to use in order to combat conformity in the workplace and create a culture that inspires these traits amongst employees.
The value of a rebel
One of the ways in which an organisation can combat the impact of conformity is by hiring ‘rebel talent’, that is employees who aren’t afraid of expressing their authentic selves, push against the status quo, and embrace multiple perspectives which ultimately benefits the organisation.
When we think of rebels, we tend to think of people who aren’t afraid to express themselves and their opinions regardless of the situation. At times it may even seem as though they are causing a disruption for no reason other than to be rebellious. Whilst hiring someone who may cause unprovoked conflict sounds like the opposite of constructive in the work environment, these individuals have the ability to bring enough zest to the organisation to keep the conformity shadows at bay.
Rebels within the work environment tend to be held in a higher regard by their peers than their unoriginal counterparts because of the authentic way in which they approach situations. They aren’t afraid of expressing their individuality and carry elevated levels of confidence, creativity, and innovation as a result. They encourage co-workers to be their true selves and to view situations from multiple perspectives. This in turn inspires creativity and innovation amongst those around them. Furthermore rebels aren’t afraid to question ineffective and redundant processes that are simply in place because “that is the way things always been”, equipping them with the ability to counteract stagnation and drive the organisation forward. These factors ultimately lead to a workforce that is more engaged, decreasing employee turn-over and increasing the retention of top talented individuals.
The influences of rebel talent can play an important role within the South African context, particularly in areas where transformation has been slow to implement. Because rebels encourage others to reflect on their traditions and beliefs they have the ability to influence factors that limit transformation in organisations, such as the hiring manager’s unconscious bias or the culture of the company, by demonstrating the value that diversity can add to the business. Changing elements such as these will inevitably influence the way in which new hires are sought out and approached and can ultimately lead to increased levels of diversity amongst employees. This in itself carries a range of benefits including increased creativity, innovation, and problem solving abilities among team members.
These are just some of the ways in which rebel talent is able to combat conformity and make positive changes within their colleagues and organisation as a whole, provided they have the necessary freedom and support from the business leaders to do so. No amount of creativity, engagement, and innovation can bring about change if the employee does not have the support and permission needed in order to act on their ideas.
Whilst rebel talent can be a great tool to combat the negative effect of conformity in the workplace, leaders should be mindful of the type of rebellion the individual is before hiring them. The positive influence of having rebel co-workers will be irrelevant if the person causes a disruption to the point that it is uncomfortable to have them around. Hiring people who are overly objective and argumentative with no sound backing can quickly become annoying and offensive to their colleagues and can have the opposite of the intended effect of bringing them on in the first place. As in most situations, in order to reap the full range of benefits that conformity and rebel talent both have to offer, a balance needs to be struck. It is the responsibility of the leaders to ensure that their employees are given sufficient guidance to know the parameters within which they can operate whilst retaining the freedom to decide on how best to approach a situation. This will ultimately create a culture that fosters creativity, cooperation, innovation, accountability, and engagement among employees across all levels of the organisation.