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Conformity: Too Much Can Be Toxic For Your Success

What Risks Are You Willing To Take?

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Courtesy of ADragan/Shutterstock
Courtesy of ADragan/Shutterstock

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to bloom.”—Anaïs Nin

When I was an undergraduate psychology major, I was required to plan and execute a psychological experiment. I replicated the famous Soloman Asch experiment on how group pressure induces conformity in decision-making. I used common geometric shapes such as a square, diamond, circle, etc. All five of the first respondents in the group of six were confederates, and the sixth respondent was the subject of the study. When presented with a picture of a square, the five confederates were instructed to say it was a rectangle, a diamond was a triangle and a rectangle was a square. As a novice researcher, I was astonished to discover that my findings matched the original findings in the classic Asch experiment that group pressure induced conformity of agreement 75% of the time, even though the group consensus was inaccurate. Subjects scratched their heads, leaned forward and bulged their eyes but went along with the group judgment anyway.

What Does This Have To Do With Business?

Certain policies and procedures along with a degree of conformity are essential for organizations to function properly. Workplace rules such as dress code, company benefits, state and federal regulations, work hours and so forth create operational scaffolding that builds common ground, good communication, comradery and workplace harmony. But there’s a point at which conformity to group pressure to gain approval or acceptance can have a negative impact. If you’re afraid to speak up, think outside the box or stick your neck out in a creative way, it stifles your morale, creative contributions and productivity that affects the quality of the product.

In the “good old days,” business was built on a motto that you live by the book and follow the straight and narrow. If you didn’t rock the boat and went along with the corporate culture, you could retire with the proverbial gold watch and live happily ever after. Not so anymore. The platform of a 21st century thriving company is one that encourages thinking outside the box, innovative ideas and employee individualism. Studies suggest organizations that foster diversity, nonconformity and inventive ideas allow you to draw on your strengths and add to the prosperity of your company. On the flip side, companies that pigeonhole you into narrow, tight roles force you to draw on your weaknesses and spend energy staying within strict confines that limit your individual and company growth. Studies also show that if your company supports self-expression, individuality and diverse ideas, you have higher engagement in your job. The company benefits from improved customer relations, greater innovation and a thriving workforce that allows you to speak your mind and reach company goals in your own unique way, using your strongest talents and passions.

What About You?

Do you go along with the pack for fear of being ridiculed or labeled peculiar, insubordinate or non-compliant—even when the common perspective is out of whack? If you follow the pack, do you think you’re more likely to win the approval of corporate honchos and reach the top of the career ladder sooner? Not necessarily according to new research. Scientists report that nonconformists are not necessarily the rebels or troublemakers in the workplace. Studies show the opposite: if you’re a nonconformist, you’re more likely to work together for the greater good of the company; whereas if you conform to social norms, you’re less likely to do so because conformity doesn’t mean good team work. Nonconformists are individualists who are more likely to ignore a coworker’s contributions and invest more effort than the norm calls for. Even in my rudimentary experiment as a novice student of experimental psychology, I discovered that my subjects seemed safer to stay in their comfort zones, go along with the group and draw on their weaknesses than to draw on their strengths, follow their unique beliefs and stick out from the group.

At the end of the day when all is said and done, maybe it’s time to ask yourself if you want to remain tight in a bud or take the risk to bloom your career. If you really do want to grow, what edge can you go to in your job? What unpredictable bridge can you jump off to sprout your wings? What limb can you reach to get to the fruit of the tree? Be willing to find that one place in your career where you’ve been hiding, then stick your neck out of your comfort zone and open pathways that can help you flourish.

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