How Can We Overcome Toxic Conformity at Work?

Why are many of our organizations almost allergenic in their responses to innovation? Why do we penalize those courageous individuals who challenge the status quo by swimming against the tide? What can we do at work to ensure that dissenting voices speak up and make us reflect on where we are going and what we are really trying to achieve? 

 I recently put these questions to Bill Templeman, author of the just-published book, Leadership Basics for Frontline Managers: Tips for Raising Your Level of Effectiveness and Communication. I wanted to know why this dynamic happens and what managers or anyone in a leadership position can do about it. Here is his complete response:  

All organizations with any sort of hierarchy are prone to believing in their visions and plans for the future; the stronger the culture, the greater the belief that “We are on the right path!” It is no secret that business plans become documents of faith, just like party platforms become documents of faith for politicians. The CEO of a major hi-tech firm recently said that he measured his executives’ teamwork skills by assessing their degree of commitment to the corporate business plan. But what if this plan is flawed? 

Admiral John Godfrey, the former Director of Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division, in analyzing "Operation Mincemeat," a highly successful World War II espionage operation, identified two major weaknesses of the Nazi’s command structure: "wishfulness" and "yesmanship."

Wishfulness is that tendency among individuals and organizations to believe information that supports their own view of reality while simultaneously to reject all contradictory information. Yesmanship is the tendency of those with less positional power to agree with those who have greater power, mainly out of fear. Yesmanship is an enabling behavior for wishfulness. 

What can we do to ensure that wishfulness and yesmanship do not distort our business planning and decision- making? How can we encourage people to speak their truth?

• Be the change you want to see in your people. If you want the truth, you must speak the truth and be the truth. 
• Encourage debate and dialogue. Welcome ideas that conflict with your own assumptions. 
• Hire people who are likely to disagree with you on business issues. 
• Instead of arguing with dissenters, ask for explanations of their thinking. 
• Treat everyone according to a set of worthwhile values.
• Build a culture of trust by demonstrating trust.
• Show your commitment by demonstrating everything you believe in through your own behavior.
• Cherish your dissenters and critiques. 

How far would Bill’s ideas go in your organization in terms of encouraging new thinking that goes against the current? Are there other ways you could discourage the toxicity of conformity at work?