3 Tips to Challenging Conformity at Work

Dima Ghawi
6 min readMay 29, 2023

Why do we conform? We all share the same desires of fitting in and belonging, including in our workplaces. Many individuals, however, feel like they must lose a piece of themselves in order to experience this inclusion. As leaders, we want our employees to feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to the workplace, where a person’s ability to embrace their uniqueness leads to productivity and innovation. Consequently, many of us emphasize that our workplaces are safe environments. And while this emphasis is important, it is not enough to challenge the insidious nature of conformity. In the past, I have gone over how managers can address conformity bias, but today I want to focus on more organization-based initiatives, where we must assume there is conformity happening in our workplaces and take intentional actions to challenge it. Let’s waste no time!

1. Identify conformity

An important element of challenging conformity in our organizations is being able to identify conformity. Workplace conformity can best be understood through behavior known as “covering.” In more technical terms, covering refers to the suppression of one’s identity, life experiences, appearance, and so forth in order to “fit” in with the dominant social structure. To translate that into my colloquial terms, covering can be understood as when people put a metaphorical mask on and try to act with a different identity than their own. For example, someone may go by a different name out of fear that people cannot pronounce their given name. A person may style their hair a certain way in order to be seen as “professional” and accepted. These behaviors and more all fall under “covering.” So what do we do about this?

Again, identification is the first step. Beyond the fact that we as leaders should keep an eye out for covering behaviors and note them as they happen, another useful strategy is to send out an anonymous survey polling employees on the extent to which they feel they must engage in covering. Consider the following sample questions:

  • I feel included and respected at [name of organization].
  • Strongly agree
  • Agree
  • Neither agree nor disagree
  • Disagree
  • Strongly disagree
  • Employees of all cultures and backgrounds are respected and valued at [name of organization].
  • Strongly agree
  • Agree
  • Neither agree nor disagree
  • Disagree
  • Strongly disagree
  • When I speak up at work, my opinion is valued.
  • Strongly agree
  • Agree
  • Neither agree nor disagree
  • Disagree
  • Strongly disagree

Additionally, there might be follow-up open-ended questions where participants can expand on their reasoning behind each response. Keep in mind, however, that employees are not obligated to complete this survey, and we must therefore respect people’s wishes not to share particular information. Even when we suspect people may be engaging in covering behaviors, forcing them to discuss those experiences is beneficial to no one. Instead, we should focus on orienting our workplace culture to counter conformity! Let’s dive into the next step of this process.

2. Solicit feedback prior to meetings

Once elements of conformity have been identified, a crucial means of addressing it is to open different avenues for diverse thought. After all, challenging conformity means challenging dominant ideas, and the best way to challenge dominant ideas is to invite unique perspectives! While we may think of meetings as the perfect opportunity to solicit new insight, we must keep in mind that not everyone feels comfortable speaking up in these spaces. As such, different avenues of communication might include specifically facilitating thoughts via email prior to meetings, surveys, or even one-on-one conversations. Afterwards, it becomes the leader’s responsibility to incorporate those thoughts into the broader meeting, ensuring that everyone involved has exposure to these diverse perspectives and can thus challenge their own conformity to dominant ideas.

An important addendum: when employees take the intimidating step to offer unique insight and dare to challenge conformity, we must validate them for those efforts. This recognition does not have to be “public” or exaggerated; simply commending them during a one-on-one interaction gives them respect and credit for questioning the norm. Voicing a divergent idea can be difficult — recognize when people are brave enough to do so!

3. Change the mindset

Bringing the previous steps together helps reveal our third and final tip for challenging conformity in organizations: identify conformity, create avenues for individual expression, and in doing so begin changing the organizational mindset. Many of us cite the importance of embracing new ideas, but sometimes we fall short of truly doing so because we haven’t shifted our mindset. This struggle is normal! My advice, then, is to think “culture add,” not “culture fit.” The Association of Corporate Counsel defines this phenomenon as follows: “Culture fit is about finding the familiar candidate who resembles the current team. With a culture add mindset, the goal is to look for someone who will reflect the company’s values but also bring a different experience or perspective to the table. The former promotes assimilation, the latter enhances creativity and innovation.” During the hiring process, asking from the get-go if a qualified candidate is a culture add or a culture fit helps ingrain in the work culture that we as leaders value unique mindsets. It is additionally important, however, to continue supporting the innovation of these employees after they have been hired.

I once gave a workshop where one of the participants stood up to share his thoughts during the discussion. He said that he had joined the organization a year ago, and soon after he began to cry. He told us that he accepted the position with this organization because during the interview, the organizational representatives told him that they wanted him because he was different, that they felt he had something unique to add because of his perspective and experiences. Once he was hired, however, every time he offered new insight or attempted to challenge the norm, they would brush him off and look at him weirdly. Within a year, he felt isolated and shunned. The value the organization had initially praised of him was now being totally overlooked.

This is the precise situation we want to avoid. Changing our mindsets to embrace “culture add” also means nurturing unique insight after the candidate has been hired. If we don’t maintain this valuation of different perspectives, then we are not truly challenging conformity.

Although this following advice is more indirectly related to conformity, it nonetheless a piece of wisdom I wish to share before we conclude this blog: sharing begets sharing. Challenging conformity means embracing our own individuality. If we are open to our employees about how we engage in covering behaviors, steps we take to reject conformity, and even our process of changing the dominant mindset in the organization itself, people are more likely to find themselves being honest and challenging conformity, too. I have a friend who developed bad arthritis at a young age to the point where she could not type. She remotely managed a global team, and every day she would use speech-to-text to communicate with them. Eventually, despite her fear of judgment, she shared her condition with her team, and the ultimate result was that members of her team proceeded to privately reach out to her and share their own struggles. Her honesty brought the team closer together. Again: sharing begets sharing. When we show the steps we are taking to question the norm, others are more likely to do the same.

And there we have it! Three key ways to identify and begin challenging conformity across organizations. Although this process is a lengthy one, the benefits of embracing new ideas are endless. I hope these tips bring all of us leaders comfort and confidence as we begin the journey of developing conformity cures for our companies!

Dima Ghawi is the founder of a global talent development company with a primary mission for advancing individuals in leadership. Through keynote speeches, training programs and executive coaching, Dima has empowered thousands of professionals across the globe to expand their leadership potential. In addition, she provides guidance to business executives to develop diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and to implement a multi-year plan for advancing quality leaders from within the organization.

Reach her at DimaGhawi.com and BreakingVases.com.

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Dima Ghawi

Empowering and advancing individuals in leadership through keynote speeches, workshops, training programs, and individual coaching. Visit www.dimaghawi.com