Now Trending: Rebel Employees

advenYou’ve tried transparency. You’ve tried culture. You’ve tried increasing engagement. You’ve even embraced the workplace design trend. What’s next?

The Harvard Business Review recently published an article by Italian management expert, Francesca Gino, on the need to let employees rebel. That’s right–rebel. To be fair, Gino is not talking about full-on anarchy but rather a more controlled version of freedom in the workplace. This is what she says:

Throughout our careers, we are taught to conform — to the status quo, to the opinions and behaviors of others, and to information that supports our views. The pressure only grows as we climb the organizational ladder. By the time we reach high-level positions, conformity has been so hammered into us that we perpetuate it in our enterprises. In a recent survey I conducted of more than 2,000 employees across a wide range of industries, nearly half the respondents reported working in organizations where they regularly feel the need to conform, and more than half said that people in their organizations do not question the status quo. The results were similar when I surveyed high-level executives and midlevel managers. As this data suggests, organizations consciously or unconsciously urge employees to check a good chunk of their real selves at the door. Workers and their organizations both pay a price: decreased engagement, productivity, and innovation.

To further illustrate her point, Gino offers the following compelling findings. While most people feel pressure to conform and feel burnt out at work, most people don’t feel like they can be themselves or feel that their organization is fully using their talents. In a survey of more than 1,000 employees, less than 10% said they worked in companies that regularly encourage nonconformity. With workplace engagement bottoming out across sectors, Gino and other researchers and executives are beginning to ask, could a bit of rebellion help fix the workplace engagement problem?

Why Employees Conform

Early on, we learn that conforming comes with rewards. From the time we learn to color or print letters, we know that staying in the lines matters. Color outside the line or permit your “A” to peak over the top ruled line on the page and you’ll lose points. Keep your crayons and letters under control and you’ll get a perfect score and if you’re lucky, even a cool sticker. By the time we arrive in high school, the benefits of conformity are already spreading. By the time you show up at Ben & Jerry’s looking for your first summer job, you likely already know that green hair and nose piercings are not the best way to get hired.

As Gino observes, “Conforming makes us feel accepted and part of the majority.” In the workplace, however, conformity is especially pervasive: “Conformity at work takes many forms: modeling the behavior of others in similar roles, expressing appropriate emotions, wearing proper attire, routinely agreeing with the opinions of managers, acquiescing to a team’s poor decisions, and so on.” And as Gino observes, it is also something too many employers exploit.

Controlled Rebellion in the Workplace

employee-engagement-ideasIronically, despite the fact that conformity is encouraged and even exploited, there is growing evidence that nonconformity is what is most venerated in the workplace. As Gino suggests, “nonconformity promotes innovation, improves performance, and can enhance a person’s standing more than conformity can.” In one study she carried out, she found that people judge a keynote speaker in red sneakers, a CEO in a hoodie and jeans, and a presenter who creates her own PowerPoint template rather than using a standard template as having higher status than their counterparts who show up in standard office wear with standard presentation templates. Going against the crowd, Gino emphasizes, “gives us confidence in our actions, which makes us feel unique and engaged and translates to higher performance and greater creativity.”

But should talent managers start encouraging rebellion? While control is a critical part of any organization, so is creativity and innovation. The goal here is not to lose control but rather to ask tough questions about what really matters. Does it really matter that all of your employees are wearing blue suits? Does it really matter that all of your employees work exactly from 9 to 5? Of course, like all other workplace experiments, the only real way to find out if a bit of rebellion is good for business is, somewhat ironically, to measure the results. In 2017, expect to see more metrics on rebellion in the workplace!

November 5, 2016   Updated :November 5, 2016      

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