The Dangers of Conformity in The Workplace

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The Dangers of Conformity in The Workplace

Too much of the same is never a good thing, especially in the workforce: homogenous teams are more likely to think similarly, take fewer risks, and even make flawed decisions. Building a more diverse team, on the other hand, can bring together a wider variety of perspectives, skillsets, experiences, and backgrounds. Plus, studies show that diverse teams are more creative and innovative, make better decisions, and drive more revenue than homogenous teams.

While we know diversity makes for stronger teams and businesses, there are a number of reasons why hiring diverse talent is hard. For example, unconscious bias makes us more likely to hire individuals who remind us of ourselves, while gendered language in job descriptions and a lack of existing internal diversity can scare diverse applicants away. 

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Even if you do manage to hire diverse talent, a culture of conformity can make them feel like their voice doesn’t matter in your organization and eventually drive them away. How do you identify and prevent the dangers of workplace conformity and exclusion from taking over your organization?

What is workplace conformity?

When people feel excluded, different, or alone in the workplace, they sometimes feel the pressure to conform to socially accepted standards and expectations in order to better fit in. This can have a negative impact both on the employee and your business.

For the employee, conformity makes them lose a part of themselves – the part that makes them unique. They might feel their voice isn’t valued and refrain from sharing ideas or a contrary point of view because they don’t want to be laughed at or ridiculed. 

For your business, conformity makes you lose out on the positives of having a diverse team. When your employees are afraid to speak up, mistakes and poor decisions can be made, which can cost you time, money, and effort. 

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Still, all of us are guilty of some level of conscious or unconscious conformity. We change ourselves ever so slightly based on who we are around, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Conformity is only dangerous when it holds us back from being ourselves. Here are some examples of how workplace conformity can change our actions, behaviors, and values: 

  • What we do and don’t choose to share about ourselves (beliefs, values, etc.)
  • How we speak
  • Whether we decide to speak up or stay silent
  • What we talk about
  • The clothing we wear
  • The attitude we present
  • The body language we use
  • How we make decisions
  • Whether we express dissenting views/opinions

If we believe that we risk emotional distress due to potential discrimination, exclusion, avoidance, or judgment, or that being our true selves may limit our success in some way, trying to conform to our environment can seem like a logical strategy. 

What is workplace exclusion? 

Workplace exclusion is the act of purposely or unintentionally leaving someone out, emotionally or physically. It is a form of workplace bullying, although it can be hard to identify. Oftentimes, feelings of exclusion can’t be tied to one particular moment. Feeling excluded is usually a combination of many small things that add up over time, leaving an employee feeling unwanted, out of place, and even ostracized in the workplace.

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Here are some common examples of workplace exclusion:

  • A coworker ignoring a colleague when they speak
  • Coworkers not inviting a colleague to grab lunch or eat together
  • Coworkers not inviting a colleague to an important meeting
  • A manager giving more favorable opportunities to one direct report, but not another
  • A colleague putting down a coworker for having a differing opinion

There are three types of workplace exclusion: intentional, unintentional, and systemic. Each of these types can do the same level of harm to your workplace, but identifying which one (or ones) are occurring in your organization is crucial to fixing them and building a culture of inclusion:

  1. Intentional Exclusion: This is where individuals actively exclude others. For example, Jack’s colleagues have been openly talking about grabbing drinks after work to celebrate the end of a big project. When it comes time to leave, Jack starts getting his things together like the rest of his team. One of his colleagues says, “Whoa, where are you going? We still need someone to send the client a recap of our meeting today. Since we’re all going out for drinks, we were hoping you could handle it. Thanks, Jack!” Then, they all head to the elevator, laughing along the way. 
  1. Unintentional Exclusion: This is where individuals unconsciously exclude others and are not fully aware of the impact of their actions. For example, Kelly’s entire team is having a social media meeting to brainstorm new content and schedule posts. The problem is… everyone her the team was invited to the meeting, except Kelly. Her boss decided not to include her because he knows she is slammed with other tasks and he didn’t want to overwhelm her. Kelly – clueless to her boss’ rationale – is hurt and thinks she was excluded because she isn’t good at her job or because her boss thought she wouldn’t add any good ideas to the mix.
  1. Systemic Exclusion: This is when prejudiced systems exclude others. For example, Taylor is a female engineer with 3 years of experience in the industry. She recently found out her newest teammate, a male who just graduated from college and has no relevant work experience, is making the same amount of money as she is. Taylor is upset that her organization doesn’t believe in pay equality, feels undervalued by her organization, and doesn’t feel welcome as a female on a predominantly male team. 

Whether these situations are intentional or unintentional doesn’t really matter because they can cause serious and irreversible harm to their target. Once an employee feels ostracized at work, it can be extremely difficult to restore their trust in their colleagues and rebuild a sense of belonging. 

Why is workplace exclusion bad and how can it lead to a culture of conformity? 

A sense of belonging is a core human need. Research shows that our brain responds to a lack of belonging the same way it does to physical pain. Our strong, negative response to exclusion has been called a “neural alarm system,” adapted over millions of years to protect us against the isolating consequences of social separation. 

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Whether we are aware of it or not, our brain and biology have been shaped to favor connection, which is also why exclusion is so painful and debilitating for all of us. When employees don’t feel that connection at work, odds are they’ll go somewhere else where they can find it. Exclusive work environments can decrease employee engagement and productivity and increase turnover. 

That’s not all: when we don’t trust each other, we don’t share information or ideas, which can create internal silos and hurt collaboration. We also tend to feel less motivated. We’re social creatures by nature and engaging with other people gives us energy and motivation.

An exclusionary culture can also impact your employer brand. Unhappy employees can air their grievances on Glassdoor, leaving you with poor reviews and a low ranking that could scare off job applicants.  Lastly, you run the risk of paying costly legal fees, if an employee decides to file a discrimination lawsuit against the company. 

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So, what is the alternative? 

Most of us choose to compromise parts of ourselves because the cost of being excluded seems too high. If we believe that being ourselves will mean being ignored, discriminated against, or excluded then it seems logical to believe that the next best option is to blend in and conform in order to be accepted. 

The problem with this though is that we are then being accepted for being like everyone else, not for being who we truly are. While fitting in can certainly have its benefits, the costs are high and grow increasingly higher over time. 

So, what’s the alternative? While it takes work and dedication, companies must build a culture of belonging so every employee feels comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work every day. 

A culture of belonging helps improve employee well-being, job satisfaction, and engagement while reducing turnover and absenteeism. That’s a pretty compelling business case of belonging. 

Building a culture in which every employee feels seen, heard, and valued is no small task, but when done right, you can kiss workplace conformity goodbye and reap the benefits of a company culture that brings people together, not apart. 

Want to learn more about how to keep your team or business from falling into a culture of conformity? Check out Hone’s “The Dangers of a Culture of Conformity” class to learn the benefits of fostering a culture of belonging and the science behind this evolutionary human need.

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The Dangers of Conformity in The Workplace