Organizations are conformist by nature. Some organizations are really conformist and some not so much, but there is always some degree of conformity…that is true of any social group actually. Conformity is the cost of membership.
Too much conformity can be really, really bad and you can see examples of this ranging from Enron to Nazi Germany. Too much conformity has always been problematic, but conformity in general has become more costly to organizations because of the changes in how we do work and how we create value.
When an organization was just trying to make as many widgets as quickly and cheaply as possible, conformity seemed pretty appealing. When my role as an employee was simply to paint as many of those widgets as I could as quickly and cheaply as possible…my supervisor might not have cared about much else. My supervisor might not have cared about my ideas or questions or other skill sets. Painting. Uniformity. Quickly. Cheaply. That is likely what my supervisor would have cared about.
But today much is different.
Quick and cheap and uniform are opportunities for competitive advantage for almost nobody today. Unfortunately, our way of leadership has not changed in any significant way to reflect the transformation in how we create value today.
Conformity, which had some real benefits 50 years ago is increasingly costly and even dangerous for organizations. Conformity makes it hard to innovate, hard to learn and hard to change and evolve as an organization. It is becoming important to organizations that their employees are able to bring their whole self to work, because their ideas, perspectives, assumptions, questions, etc. are now valuable materials.
I shared a few thoughts about this transformation in Whole People Build Whole Organizations and The Whole Truth. In your post you pointed to a few ways organizations make it hard for us to “bring our whole self to work;” avoiding conflict, not promoting weirdos and companies still thinking they are in control.
I agree with the three things on your list and I think that at their core, each of these things can be boiled down to not understanding the dynamics and the value of difference. I think that difference (or diversity) is likely the most poorly understood thing in the world of business today. It also, in my humble opinion, explains one of the statements toward the end of your post:
“This isn’t an issue of self-confidence or even being comfortable in your own skin. I feel relatively far along in both of those areas and yet I consciously pack away parts of my true self when I head into the office every day.”
Your self-confidence might be fine and you might love your own skin. But you know, as everyone else knows, that standing out can be costly. Unfortunately most of us tend to see difference as a threatening or negative thing rather than a valuable thing (especially in the organizational context)…conversely, most of us spend a lot of time, and a lot of energy trying to fit in. The more we work to fit in, the less authentic we are as we have to truncate our true identities to look, talk, walk, dress, smell and think the way everyone else does.
So, what do we do about it? I will tackle that in another post.