Sometimes, going against the crowd or even just having a different way of thinking to your colleagues around you can lead you to become the “black sheep” of your business. In the past, being a black sheep had a negative connotation; it was perceived as something not to be proud of.
But today, could the term have lost its stigma? Has it actually become something positive? We’re all familiar with the idea of a maverick sales rep; someone who doesn’t follow company processes but nevertheless gets good results and is loved by their customers. This sales rep is, in effect, a black sheep – or in other words – a nonconformist. A nonconformist is someone who doesn’t conform to other people’s ideas of how things should be (1). Businesses are waking up to the idea that not conforming to the norm can actually be a source of business success; finding new and innovative ways to solve business challenges.
Can nonconformity benefit a business?
Challenging the status quo is the only way to drive businesses forward. When a business is successful or a leader in their market, it can feel difficult to make changes; fearing that something could go wrong to disrupt their position in that market.
This same thinking also applies to the structure of people working inside a business, depending on where you are in terms of hierarchy and seniority. As Adam Grant explains in his interview “In Praise of Dissenters and Non-Conformists” (2), when you are at the top of the ladder, you have already earned your reputation as a high achiever, therefore, you have “earned the right” to differ. In simple terms, you’ve earned the right to think differently. Conversely, when you have just started at a company, or you are at the bottom of the ladder, you have nothing to lose and therefore it can feel easier to take the risk and speak out.
However, when you are in the middle of the hierarchy, i.e. middle management, you are in a tough position; having worked really hard to get where you are, the fear of losing what you’ve won starts to kick in. This can stop you from speaking out or proposing something different, in the worry that you may lose your credibility or even your position if your idea fails. As a consequence, you stop thinking of new ways to challenge the status quo and help the business to evolve and thrive. You become a conformist individual due to the fear of jeopardising your position. You close yourself down to new ideas.
Without fresh new ideas, evolution can’t take place and therefore progress stops. Businesses become less innovative, creativity disappears and new ideas are never explored. In the long term this can lead a business to failure and culminate in its disappearance as new players emerge. It follows the same idea as our article ‘How EBITDA killed innovation’ as companies become too scared to change for fear of impacting on their quarterly revenue targets.
Nonconformity is needed in a business to enable it to thrive and be successful in the market, but also to keep the business aiming for more; taking calculated risks and following to foster creativity within the wider industry sector. Employees should be encouraged to speak out and give ideas, because if not, opportunities are missed.
Integrating nonconformity into a business
Nonconformists are often not afraid to disagree with their managers and colleagues. They question their supervisors and challenge their ideas with some of their own, leading to new possibilities that can help the business as a whole. They also take calculated risks, being able to grasp an opportunity before others and pursue it with energy and vigour. This can lead to new successes for the business, such as new partnerships or business deals. Nonconformists tend to not follow the crowd and try new directions which is critical to improving existing product developments or creating a new service from scratch.
Nonconformists value opinions that are different from theirs, consider and understand others’ points of view and are able to recognise as well a good idea in others, even if it does not match with their own view. This sparks creativity and healthy challenging – so how can you start to incorporate this environment of constructive challenging and creative practices into your organisation today?
People have ideas and suggestions, but these are usually never transmitted to the decision makers for fear of making a mistake or being punished for challenging the current system. Sometimes employees don’t bother to speak up because there is always the thought that no one will really care what about what they have to say.
Encouraging feedback and open collaboration
A great example of encouraging original ideas and constructive criticism is the one of Tom Gerrity (2). He was running a software company called Index, and as CEO, he was worried that being at the top meant that no one would ever challenge him about what they really thought of him or how the business was going. One day, Gerrity arranged to be publicly criticised by an external consultant in front of the whole company. He took notes and said he would take on board those comments and improve in the aspects mentioned. After that, employees recognised that he was approachable and actively open to new ideas, suggestions and criticism and therefore – open to change. It also encouraged the rest of the company to follow his lead and practice the same thinking with their colleagues, giving and receiving constructive criticism and sharing ideas freely that could potentially help the business to move forward.
Another way to encourage nonconformity in a business is to organise feedback sessions once a month where managers and employees can exchange their views. It’s also useful to think about how you could organise meetings between all levels of employees across the business with the CEO or executives to foster a culture of idea sharing and open collaboration between departments and management levels.
So, it doesn’t matter if a person is a nonconformist by default. If you have the right working environment that truly believes in progress and wants to challenge the status quo, nonconformity is encouraged and nourished. There are always different ways in which businesses can encourage nonconformity, and not all cases can be a replica of the Tom Gerrity one. But every manager and employee can help to foster an environment that nourishes original ideas, while promoting constructive feedback and suggestions. Without that, the status quo will never change and progress will always be stuck in reverse.