What does encouraging constructive nonconformity look like?

Staff Writer

In this HBR article, Francesca Gino asserts that leaders should let workers rebel. Gino’s simple position is that employee engagement is a big problem and encouraging workers to break the rules and be themselves would go a long way toward solving it! She suggests that throughout our careers we are taught to conform to the status quo, our organization’s conformity is drummed into us, and so we pass it on to our people. Consciously or unconsciously, the expectation of conformity keeps the 30-year trend of dominant employee disengagement alive. Gino’s research shows that less than 10% of employees work in companies that regularly encourage nonconformity.

Conformity Does have its Purpose

Not all conformity is bad as certain rules and procedures are needed to ensure safety, quality and consistency. Conformity is a double-edged sword as organizations need a blend of adherence to the formal rules and an openness to an entrepreneurial spirit and initiative. On the positive side, conformity and checklists are vital to ensure that airplanes take off, fly, and land safely. It is, however, this same conformity that has allowed the horrific and well-publicized passenger experiences that included being beat up and hospitalized for failing to give up a seat.

We know this about the human beings that work in organizations: conformity to rules is not the path to engaging their hearts and minds, or providing the freedom necessary for people to willingly contribute the best they have to offer. Research also shows that when people feel inauthentic at work, it is most often because they have “caved in” to social pressure to conform.

Mixing Conformity and Freedom

A senior executive in the hospitality industry put it this way: The best example of high performing organizations where people gladly contribute and are vested in the results includes both a framework (conformity) and freedom (nonconformity). These organizations and leaders find a way to combine a framework of shared standards that are conformed to, and the individual freedom for creativity and unique discretionary effort. As she explains, “it is the freedom and uniqueness that people bring to our guest experience that sets us apart and it is up to us as leaders to invite and encourage that uniqueness to be part of the guest experience every day.”

Gino encourages each of us to ask four questions that are pivotal to getting the combination of the framework and the freedom correct:

  1. What triggers the desire to conform?
  2. When is conformity useful to individuals and the organization, and when is it harmful?
  3. How can leaders strike the right balance between conformity and nonconformity in their organizations and themselves?
  4. How as leaders can we encourage people to be themselves, use their signature strengths, and challenge the status quo?

A good place to start reframing your thinking and is to ask yourself as a leader, what does promoting freedom or constructive nonconformity look like in my organization or team? Or, more boldly, how can I encourage deviant behavior with my people?

Five ways you can encourage people to be a catalyst for change, growth, and authentic engagement:

  1. Encourage your people to develop a personal purpose statement and invite them to link it to the business. Purpose is a much stronger alignment mechanism than rules and regulations and provides the runway for people to experiment and accept the risk associated with nonconformity.
  2. Help people identify their strengths and get clear about where the greatest opportunities exist to fully use them in their current role or a new possible role.
  3. Chalk the field with areas where we have big targets for finding a better way. Not everything is ripe for challenge, nonconformance, and deviance. Be clear and encouraging for the areas that are.
  4. Practice oscillation of ideas and innovations. Great breakthroughs can come from the “kinda like” practice of moving between your work and personal experiences. For example, if one of your people is a passionate photographer, as a leader you could ask, are there any trends in photography that could apply to us challenging the status quo on how we share information? Try it, it will help your people to think outside the box and foster a broader perspective.
  5. Make it safe and a common expectation to dissent by carving out a time to be the advocate of a different point of view. Make it easy to go from asking, ‘do we all agree’ to ‘what are the top arguments for a totally different approach?’ Some organizations called it the “positive pushback” and create routines where everyone gets the chance to take a very different and non-status quo perspective.

What actions do you take in your organization or with your team to get people to constructively break the rules? What rules are being broken and how’s it going?