Do you want to belong or stand out? The Conformity Paradox

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By Renée Goyeneche—

Maintaining an independent sense of identity within the professional world can be difficult for a number of reasons. One of the major hurdles comes from the idea of ​​”queuing up” to meet professional expectations. There are certain standards of behavior in the workplace, and most people understand that their careers can depend on the interpersonal relationships that are formed there. That knowledge means we censor ourselves to conform to written and unwritten rules, allowing us to belong and what is known as social capital. Social capital is the value gained from forming positive connections with people, and it is especially important in the workplace. Acceptance at work provides access to people who can make career success possible: networks and social groups, mentors and opinion leaders. When we look at the dynamics and politics in our workplace, we consider a number of factors. Among them: how does leadership behave? What is the communication style? Who is rewarded and for what?

We pay attention to standards, follow directions, and live up to expectations because we understand that those labeled “different” are often left out of the conversations and activities that would help them build professional relationships. When we conform, we sacrifice part of our individuality. Yet it is a logical strategy, especially if we feel that a lack of conformity can lead to exclusion, discrimination or judgment from our colleagues. That kind of response from even one key player can sap our social capital and effectively stifle our professional growth.

Two types of conformity are particularly prevalent in the workplace: informational and prescriptive. Information conformity is when we study others to help us obtain information, form opinions, or help us make decisions. Normative conformity is when we behave in specific ways to gain acceptance.

Adjusting at work has its advantages, because harmonious relationships make everything easier. If you get along well with others, your colleagues will be more supportive and more willing to speak up on your behalf. They are also more likely to ensure a balanced workload and create a shared professional safety net.

While a degree of coherence among peers is necessary for operations to run smoothly, it is essential to consider how often and to what extent we censor our authentic selves. Therein lies the paradox: conforming may make us more palatable to others, but at the expense of our own sense of identity?

Some things to think about:

  • How drastically do you change the way you present yourself? We all do little things, especially on the surface. Maybe you’re softening makeup, obscuring tattoos, or avoiding edgy clothes that suit you more in a personal setting. It’s probably not a big deal because while these things provide some context to your true character, they don’t define it. Now think about what you choose (or don’t choose) to share about yourself and your core beliefs or values. Would someone you know well outside of work recognize you in a professional environment?
  • To what extent do you adjust your way of speaking? This question has many layers. The simplest interpretation is: how do you formulate what you say? You can choose your words more carefully, soften your comments, or omit language you may have used in a more authentic interaction. These are reasonable and professional accommodations. However, consider following what you feel good to say, and the idea becomes more nuanced. Do you shut up when you know you have to speak? If you have a dissenting opinion or opinion, do you express it or bite your tongue?

If you lead a team, balancing the concept of conformity becomes even more closely linked to success. A ‘wild west’ atmosphere rarely serves a company’s interests. However, research shows that diverse teams have higher success rates, so creating a workplace that provides clear expectations, but at the same time supports individualism and authenticity, should always be a key business initiative. It is critical to understand that employees who feel limited by their environment provide an edited version of themselves. They can rely less on their innate strengths, often resulting in reduced productivity and substandard work.

How to cultivate a professional environment focused on collaboration, not conformity:

1. Ask for opinions privately and if possible prior to a discussion. You’ll get more genuine feedback when people aren’t influenced or silenced by others. Starting a meeting with, “I’ve gotten some great suggestions on this topic, and I’d like to discuss them today,” opens the floor for all ideas without bias. While your team practices the concepts, you can credit people as needed. Another benefit: Asking questions in advance helps people flesh out their ideas more fully before the meeting.

2. Control the tone of communication. The voice of one person should not dominate the team. As a leader, you can avoid that by familiarizing yourself with each member’s natural strengths. If you see the opportunity, call on those with a softer voice so that everyone is heard.

3. Provide transparency in the decision-making process. There are times when business leaders are not the foremost experts. Recognizing this idea and setting out the options for: a the team’s decision-making process encourages pros and cons in a “no judgment zone”. Showing respect for different solutions creates the expectation that team members can discuss ideas, but not discredit them. The ideal working environment combines the ideas of conformity and individuality. The most effective teams create a hybrid workplace that calls on people to create a respectful, supportive atmosphere while celebrating diversity and independent thinking.

Renee Goyeneche: I’m a writer and research editor focused on information that benefits women, children, and families. find me on Twitter and blog on Imperfect perceptions


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