Why Conforming At Work Is Holding You Back

Humans have evolved to work best as part of a team, but the instinct to conform, in everyone from CEOs to employees, can hobble your progress – you need to rebel…

We all like to fit in, but that subconscious need to be part of the crew can cost you your edge at work, and studies are now revealing that to make the most of your potential you need to break out of the mould that organisations, and your own reflexes, have created. Here’s how…



Way back in the ‘50s the psychologist Solomon Asch ran an experiment where he proved peer pressure was powerful enough to make us intentionally make bad decisions, and choose incorrect solutions, just to fit in. Of course, this isn’t the ‘50s but workplace culture is still surprisingly conformist. Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, Francesca Gino, has done recent research showing that almost 50% of employees, regardless of seniority and across a wide range of businesses, said they ‘regularly felt the need to conform’.

‘So what?’ you may ask. After all, if everyone just turned up when they wanted, wearing tiger onesies and slam-dunking paper wads, it would be chaos, right? Well, according to more research from Prof. Gino and colleagues at Northwestern and Columbia Universities, people who feel ‘inauthentic’ at work have usually crumbled under the pressure to conform. This is bad, because if you feel like a fraud to yourself, then you’re less likely to be engaged in what you’re doing, and you can even feel less able to take potentially beneficial professional risks, for fear you will be ‘found out’. So, how do you break the mould without alienating everyone else?


‘If you feel like a fraud to yourself, you’re less likely to be engaged in what you’re doing’


1. Recognise When You’re Conforming

One key thing that us humans have evolved to do, is find the easy life. The less hard we have to work, the fewer calories we burn, and the longer we can survive when the crops fail/ the wolf pack closes in/ that volcano over there explodes. But this results in an unfortunate tendency to preserve the status quo, even if we don’t like it, or find it particularly useful to our work – this is probably the conundrum behind 98% of all office moaning. The solution is simple: don’t be lazy. Challenge yourself to find different, innovative solutions and you’ll probably be challenging the organisation-stagnating status quo too, without having to point fingers elsewhere.


2. Park Your Initial Response

Another example of counterproductive conformity lies in ‘confirmation bias’, which even famously rational scientists have to watch out for. If you’re testing whether a product is going to work in a given market, for instance, take a step back and disregard your first, emotionally-charged reaction to the results. The odds are that you’re leading, or part of, a team that’s already emotionally invested, which can create conformity to a skewed group opinion, which is usually expressed as some semi-mythical ‘gut instinct’. Emotional distance will help you to treat all the evidence equally, rather than subconsciously cherry picking positive results, and acting with hostility to negative ones. The shit-storm that comes when a product fails in the real world is nothing to the one you risk by playing Devil’s advocate beforehand.


3. Think Like A Journalist

When a boss or a client says ‘I want to do X’, if it’s a fairly reasonable idea that doesn’t involve base-jumping from the fifth floor, the default response is to say: ‘OK, yes we can achieve that by doing Y.’ The less natural response is to reply with: ‘Why do you want to do X?’ Unless you’re a journalist, of course. OK, so they get a bad rep for selling their Grandmothers for a story, but it’s second nature to them to apply strategic analysis and to challenge opinions presented as truth.

By switching your thinking from tactical to strategic, you’re demonstrating an awareness of the bigger picture, while – if you word it right – expressing a curiosity about your client or boss’s deeper objectives, prompting them to include you in their plans, and creating a stronger team bond, all without having to stoop to being a ‘Yes Man’.


‘CEOs in hoodies are perceived to have higher status than those who conform to norms’


4. Take Courage From Science

Standing out from the crowd can be scary, and if not that, can look suspiciously like a ‘look at me’ bid for attention. But more research – from Harvard Business School’s Prof. Gino, and Columbia again – shows that those who stand apart in business, from keynote speakers in red sneakers, to CEOs in hoodies, to freestyling presenters, are perceived to have higher status than those who conform to the Powerpoint template. The psychology seems to be: ‘Oh, their skills are so good, they can get away with doing what they want.’ Of course, it takes confidence to turn up to a podium in red kicks, but then again how else do you become confident, if not by presenting yourself as, you know, confident. As Confucius said: ‘Education breeds confidence’, so learn from the research and channel your inner rebel – after all, there’s no hiding behind red Converse…


WHAT NEXT? The next time you feel burnt out, ask yourself: ‘Am I demotivated because I’ve done too much, or is the truth closer to being that I’ve done too little that I believe in?’ If it’s the latter, then it may be time to start rebelling against the expectations that you’ve allowed to build up around you…