Enjoying Your Work
Nonconformists can be influential if they have allies
People's sensitivity to the opinions and attitudes of others, and their desire not to be seen as odd and nonconforming, have a long history.
Imagine various social situations that faced our distant ancestors. They may have wanted food even though they did not have any themselves. They wanted protection from hostile outsiders. They wanted help in building shelters that would protect offer protection during severe storms.
The attainment of these goals would have been greatly assisted if the people were members of groups.
For example, if people did not have food, they could call upon group members to give them some. The group members would likely honor the request if they were convinced that the people would share food that they obtained at a later time. In this case involving food, and the others involving protection and shelter, people's survival was dependent upon group memberships.
People who could make contributions to groups and who could benefit from group memberships, then, had many advantages over loners and outcasts. One reason people conform to group norms is to signal that they are cooperative people who can be depended upon the make contributions to their groups. If people do not conform, they might be treated as social pariahs who cannot ask others for assistance during times of need.
This inclination to conform remains with us today. Most people do not enjoy standing up at public meetings and advocating a position with which most attendees disagree. If they do speak up, then know that they risk catcalls, stinkeye, and name calling. Further, they realize they may be snubbed for months or even years if they happen to see group members at the grocery store.
While going against group norms and behaving as a nonconformist is never easy, there are several approaches that make the task slightly less unpleasant.
In last week's column, I discussed idiosyncrasy credit. If people have long been active and important workers on behalf of their groups, they can sometimes engage in one nonconforming act related to an issue about which they feel strongly. Other group members are likely to interpret the deviance as an odd or idiosyncratic behavior that does not cancel out several years of contributions to the group.
Another approach can be best communicated through an example in which readers might imagine themselves as participants:
People are at a group meeting in Hawaii dealing with the future of a company. There has been a rumor that executives on the mainland want to move to a part of Oahu that is 30 miles from the company's current site. Fifteen employees come to a meeting to discuss the rumor. Almost all of them are against the proposed move. They argue that the move would place a burden on employees who would have to sell their homes and transfer their children to other schools. There is one person who wants to speak up in favor of the move. This person feels that the new site would be better for attracting new customers.
How many other people in favor of the move must be willing to speak up so that the person is willing to challenge the group consensus? Readers may know the answer from their own past experiences. The presence of only one other person is necessary for a nonconformist to be noticeably more comfortable speaking in favor of an unpopular position.
This leads to advice for potential nonconformists. They could contact other group members prior to a meeting to see if there is at least one other individual who shares their views. That other individual could agree to speak up as a second person in favor of the unpopular proposal. There is a special responsibility that is assumed by this second person. This individual has to follow through on the commitment to speak at the group meeting. If the second person remains silent, then the first nonconformist will be "left dangling" and will be justifiably upset.
The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Given the amount of time people spend at work, job satisfaction should ideally be high and it should contribute to general life happiness. Enjoyment can increase as people learn more about workplace psychology, communication, and group influences.
is a professor in the College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the College Relations Office at email@example.com