It’s possible that this phrase has been said before, but I say it to myself often and live by it because it is truly my belief. Merriam Webster defines conformity to be “action in accordance with some specified standard or authority.” Authenticity is defined as “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.”
What happens when what’s true to your personality, spirit or character is NOT in accordance with a preset, specified standard?
Well, in the many discussions I have had over the years with people at all levels, the answer in the corporate world leans toward conformity taking precedence (almost) every time. Employees are asked, even if silently, to check aspects of themselves that don’t fit a certain mold set by their company, and only when they’re off the clock are they able to be who they truly are. Whether such standards are explicitly defined by company policies, or are implicitly carried out through a culture that conditions their people to believe that success can only be found through acting like their managers and colleagues, the impact is real. It’s when the culture is dis-empowering and actually success-inhibiting that makes employees feel as though they cannot apply their whole self to their advancement.
So the real question is, what can we do to change this narrative? The first step is recognizing ways in which conformity is manifested.
1. Your company strictly regulates how you physically show up. When I first began my career in finance, I actually joined a gym a few blocks from my office so I could change in and out of my collared shirt and pant-or skirt-suit and into clothes I actually felt comfortable in every day. I felt so constricted by the clothes I was expected to wear that I didn’t want to show up that way in my daily life. I was afraid to wear a dress I really liked or to show my sense of style because I was worried about what people would think or say. This does not mean I am advocating for coming to work inappropriately or looking unprofessional, but how we’re expected to show up should not detract from our identification or feelings of self worth.
2. Your leadership feels and sounds inauthentic. I have been a participant, active and inactive, in so many organizations, panels and company events in my career where it felt as though speakers were simply repeating industry jargon, rather than speaking from real emotions or experiences. The cycle of conformity is perpetuated by people who don’t hold space for authenticity and broadcast the messages that they’ve been taught as their truth. If you get the sense that you’ve experienced this, don’t be afraid to break the cycle. When asked to share your thoughts or ideas, speak from your heart, rather than from what you’ve heard someone else say.
3. Your company doesn’t promote the spread of ideas. Conformist corporate culture has conditioned people to believe that any creative ideas they have should be shared with their direct supervisor only. This, however, limits your ability to take ownership over your ideas, as well as the opportunity for more insights that can further develop it. When you have a new idea that you’re excited about, you should feel empowered to talk with peers and other people at the management level about it, establishing it as your own and receiving feedback as you talk it through, before looking to implement it.
4. Your workplace isn’t supportive of new processes. Not everyone thinks the same or produces work in the same way. Some people work better in quiet, isolated spaces while others need bursts of conversation to accelerate their work. Some workers perform better in the morning, and even if every other person in the office is staying until 6:15 p.m., they know that they’ve fulfilled all their responsibilities by 5. No office should force its employees to work in ways that are unproductive or counter-intuitive. In that same vein, companies should not be married to tradition. 20 years of creating a deliverable one way shouldn’t be immune to tweaks or even overhauls. A company that values authenticity over conformity should support employees in questioning the status quo while seeking out innovation in different or unconventional ways.
5. Emotions aren’t a part of your office life. An authentic work environment welcomes humanity. It expects workers to be fully themselves and express happiness and excitement as well as professional levels of stress or sadness. It encourages connection and strong relationships, whereas a conformist space does the opposite. It asks workers to show up as a shell of themselves, focusing only on work and not at all on interpersonal relationships. This not only hurts a team’s connection, but limits the business’s productivity. Which begs the question, as I’m sure all of these points have, why in the world do companies do this??
Conformist culture is self-perpetuating. Every time a leader, company or industry sets a standard, people build off of it, and for fear of being the odd one out, this process isn’t questioned. But this way of operating is counter-intuitive. Not only does it limit employees’ abilities to think, create and communicate, it leaves certain people entirely out of the picture. Corporate workers are not one-size-fits-all, and through not questioning conformity, we, as a society, are excluding new ideas and ways of thinking from coming in.
It’s time to play some catch up with the rest of the world. With all the POSITIVE changes that society and technology have made over the past few years, fear should no longer be an excuse. Let’s push the paradigm that conformity is no longer necessary. Authenticity is where true power lies, and if we break the status quo, we’re only setting the scene for more advancement to come.