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Square peg; round hole – individualism in the workplace

Candid, unusual, unexpected – is there room for individualism and personal expression within the workplace? We all know people bring different skills, strengths and experiences to the workplace and the best teams consist of complementary – not cloned – personalities. But how far is this reflected in current recruitment practice? Have we lost sight of the power of individuals…..

Life on the fringes

Perhaps this is where some people feel most comfortable – on the fringes, one foot planted deliberately on the outside where they can fuel their creativity, free from the strictures of office convention or ‘best practice’.

Where would we be without the vision, courage, and tenacity of individuals like the Wright Brothers and their ‘Flying Machine’ or Galileo or even Steve Jobs? And, at this point, who better to wheel out than Albert Einstein….

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.

Creative – some might say “eccentric” – individuals have always attracted attention, and sometimes been mocked and derided for their efforts. But progress is driven by the will of intrepid mavericks who are prepared to challenge the status quo, bend the rules a little and sidestep traditional thinking.

The benefits of space and autonomy

Innovation doesn’t have to be on a grand, life-changing scale: even the smallest changes can enhance productivity and effectiveness.  But this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Companies have to create the right environment to foster creativity and change, and this means inspiring a culture of trust and autonomy.

A research project conducted by Harvard Professor, Ethan Bernstein, on a manufacturing floor at a leading technologically advanced plant in Southern China in 2009 discovered that workers became focussed on performing tasks strictly by the book whenever they knew they were under the close observation of their managers which led to them working more slowly, but when they were allowed to work in privacy, using their own initiative ‘the real show went on, and that show was more productive’. Something to share with overly exacting managers?

Intensive training or light touch?

Francesca Gino (Associate Professor in the Negotiations, Organizations, and Markets Unit at Harvard Business School) has studied employment relationships, comparing the intensive training of new staff versus the lighter touch taken with temporary staff and (un)surprisingly found:

 …individuals working temporarily as part of a research team were more engaged and satisfied with their work, performed their tasks more effectively and were also more likely to return to work when initial socialization focused on personal rather than organizational identity. In addition, authentic self-expression mediated these relationships.”

If companies value adaptability, creativity, the ability to innovate and problem solve then surely it makes sense to create a culture which truly encapsulates that vision? As employees spend an increasing amount of their waking time with colleagues rather than with their own family/community the freedom to be genuine (and authentic) within the workplace will only enhance personal satisfaction and motivation. A win-win.

The power of the individual

How many times do you hear companies state that ‘our people are our strongest asset’ and then then seek to eliminate all traces of individuality through staff development initiatives which adopt the ‘one size fits all’ approach. Similarly staff who are micro-managed can feel stifled and with no outlet for their creative zest become demoralised and demotivated. Not a winning strategy.

I think Tina Fey nailed it with this comment:

Yes, there is a bigger picture; even the most ardent non-conformist has to knuckle down occasionally and accept the benefits of collaborative working. But, that doesn’t mean surrendering your individuality – your “greatest agent of power“.  Resist the temptation to (always) confirm, concur or concede. Don’t be afraid to be curious, to offer something different and to suggest the unexpected.

Maybe it’s time to let the loose cannons fire (but bring an extinguisher….just in case!)

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