In most workplaces, there is a certain expectation of conformity on the part of staff. For instance, most workers conform to the unspoken policy that there will not be swearing or disrespectful behaviour. In the legal sector, for instance, lawyers are expected to dress conservatively. Most, if not all workers are expected to be punctual and follow the systems and hierarchy in place to help the organization run efficiently.
But what happens when employees’ personal values clash with those of the organization, perhaps on religious, cultural or other grounds?
Many companies include values such as integrity, responsibility and fast, efficient service in their mission and values statements. However, there are often implicit values that employees encounter after they take a position. It’s these hidden values that can make staff consider moving on or hiding aspects of themselves.
It is easy to simply advise the worker to move to another organization, but in the economic downturn, that is easier said than done. Who is going to quit when there may not be another job to go to?
In these situations, according to researcher, Patricia Faison Hewlin at Georgetown University, employees who disagree with organizational values but appear to conform to other expectations such as going out for a drink after work to create camaraderie, risk experiencing emotional exhaustion. This means having to manage feelings such as guilt, shame and self-depreciation that arise when one is not being oneself for an extended period of time. Being oneself at work means feeling safe and having differences tolerated in the workplace. The less the tolerance for differences based on such elements as age, race, sex or physical ability, the more conformity to organizational norms is required.
In a more robust economy these workers might leave. But in a recession, many feel forced to stay. They deal with the situation by being disengaged , disconnected, apathetic and disillusioned.. This hampers performance and reduces productivity, which is something companies can ill afford, especially right now.
Workplaces that do not value employee involvement or participation are most susceptible to the damaging effects of excessive conformity and being untrue to one’s values. As well, certain employees are most susceptible to having to hide their values, thoughts and beliefs to remain employed or accepted by the organization.
These include minorities or those who perceive themselves to be a member of a minority group. In addition, staff who are highly attuned to social cues and use these to guide their behaviour, and people who see themselves as inseparable from others and tend to promote the group’s needs over their own interests, are more likely to experience a lack of genuineness at work.
There are five ways to prevent inauthentic behaviour at work and avoid the costs of high turnover and disengagement that may result:
1. Create a Receptive Environment
Employers who work hard to create working environments that promote the expression of diverse ideas are less likely to suffer the effects of staff conformity. Instead, employees express their opinions and ideas in an atmosphere of tolerance, respect and curiosity. The resulting opportunity for increased creativity and latitude to explore new ideas is beneficial to the organization. Staff feel freer to offer suggestions regarding processes, how the job might get done more efficiently and the like.
2. Encourage Staff Participation
Encouraging staff to participate in decision-making in the organization is another way to reduce the need for acquiescence at work. If staff are engaged in decision-making and can make a meaningful contribution to the workplace, they are less likely to appear to be going through the motions to keep their jobs. This is important when considering employee productivity since doing the bare minimum to keep one’s job in a recessionary period will hamper business performance and profitability.
3. Encourage Diversity
Hiring people of different age groups, races and including both men and women in the workforce is important, as is making provisions for workers with disabilities. The more the workplace values diversity, the less chance there is for a homogeneous workforce. By ensuring that different groups interact and work together and that each is trained in understanding each other, the more the opportunity for authenticity, engagement and productivity at work is increased. By decreasing conformity, inauthentic behaviour and the suppression of divergent ideas, organizations benefit, and there is much research to support this.
4. Handle “Collectivists”
The tendency to put the good of the group ahead of one’s own needs can be admirable if it exists in staff who are part of an organization that values difference and its expression. In organizations, that do not value staff involvement, collectivists can become a formidable force that results in peer pressure to toe the line, paving the way for bullying and other tactics that pressure detractors to conform. On the other hand, collectivists are the consummate team players and valued highly in organizations that are comfortable with staff involvement and autonomy.
5. Handle Self Monitors
These chameleon-like employees value social acceptance above all else and will shift their behaviour to ensure inclusion in the group. Again, in an organization that values diversity, these folks may be a bit confused at times, but their abilities to interact smoothly with others no matter who they are will benefit the company. However, if an organization is more conformity based, self monitors will change themselves to fit the dominant group’s mores. If they are not accepted by the group they have a tendency to leave the organization. In a recessionary period, a sense of being an outcast will cause staff to consider long or short term disability as a viable option rather than leaving. Self-monitoring staff who don’t feel they belong can be a drain on an organization. Ensuring that staff are participating in decision-making and building a culture that respects difference is key to helping self monitors stay engaged, included and productive at work.
Conforming to values that don’t fit one’s personality, belief system or desired goals is taxing and affects one’s physical and psychological well-being. Ensuring that workplaces encourage authentic behaviour on the part of staff staves off burnout, reduced productivity and disengagement. While nonconformity can seem risky to some employers, the benefits out weigh the apparent costs in the long term.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.