Innovative thinking, generating new ideas on the forefront, involves risk: risk of failure; risk that people will laugh, make fun, humiliate, and even denounce as ridiculous. So the extent that people will conform to mainstream thinking determines how much they willingly risk. These traits, high or low risk taking, high or low conforming, determines the kinds of innovative outcomes your work group creates.
Work groups insist on conformity to norms, rules, customs, and policies. High conformers define problems and generate ideas along conventional paths, preferring solutions that conform to existing conditions. They make their creative output compatible with work norms and do not shift paradigms easily. Usually uncomfortable with the bizarre, they do not rock the boat. They solve problems narrowly. High conformers do things better, not differently.
Low conformers, the opposite of this, prefer to shift paradigms broadly, and explode problem definitions beyond conventional norms and reasonable boundaries of the original problem. They love the bizarre and enjoy rocking the boat, sinking it if they can. They solve problems innovatively. Low conformers do things differently, not just better.
A TRUE STORY:
I once observed a work group tackling a problem of ‘absenteeism’ that exceeded acceptable levels in the plant by just a few percentage points. Some of the members, clearly high conformers, suggested sending letters to frequent absentees, providing rewards for non-absenteeism and penalties for excessive absenteeism, all within the bounds of absenteeism.
On the other hand, other members, clearly low conformers, suggested very different things. For example, they shifted the paradigm so the real problem became motivation, not absenteeism. We have to motivate people to come to work. How? Paint and decorate the building. Everyone gets an office with a window. Build a gym. They suggested a new building. In a new town. How about in Paris, France? How about more fun at work? More parties. Less work, more fun? No work, all fun. If top management will not go along, fire them (much laughter). All this triggered by absenteeism that was a little higher than desired.
Does this seem familiar? Two opposing types in conflict over style: each style affects how people shift paradigms; define problems; and generate, select, and develop ideas; in the acceptance of change itself.
A TRUE STORY:
A vice-president of R&D, a confessed low conformer, told me about a machine he developed after being denied permission to continue. He found space in the back of a warehouse, built a partition to mimic the back wall, and hid the entrance to the hidden room with packing cases and boxes. He developed the machine in secret with a few trusted colleagues. Only after he finished it did he inform the delighted company president, the same person who had denied him permission to develop it.
Extreme high or low conformers don’t exist at work, even if you think you know one. Locate yourself or other people on the scale between the extremes? The following may help:
High conformers, reliable and efficient, tend toward precision. They solve problems in conventional ways and don’t shift paradigms. They seek stability. Other people see them as safe and dependable. They put in long hours on detailed work without boredom and challenge rules only with strong support from others. They comply. High conformers, sensitive to people, work to maintain team cohesion, teamwork, and cooperation. Do these traits fit you or others?
Do high conformers prove useful in a work group? Of course. Without them, chaos occurs, and little gets finished. An organization without enough high conformers falls apart, since high conformers provide the necessary administrative glue that holds things together.
Low conformers, on the other hand, tend to lack discipline. They shift paradigms frequently and approach problems from new angles. They challenge a problem’s assumptions and define a problem incessantly. They don’t comply easily. Their indifference to team consensus leads people to see them as abrasive, undependable, impractical, or combative. Routine tasks bore them. They challenge rules frequently, and have low respect for past customs. Insensitive to other people and team cohesion, they don’t cooperate. Do these preferences fit you or others?
Do low conformers prove valuable? Of course. An organization without enough low conformers staggers toward complacency and stagnation. It heads for difficulty the next time the environment changes to produce a crisis.
Low or high conformance has little to do with creative ability. Equally creative within their styles, people still perceive low conformers as more creative because they take higher risks, have an adventurous spirit, and use bizarre trigger-ideas during problem solving.
A third type exists, people in the middle range of conformance, moderate conformers, who span the gap between high and low conformers. These people can, within limits, communicate with both types. The moderate conformers of a work group usually includes its leader, since leaders must be able to communicate with all people. Again, this has no bearing on creative ability, but reflects a preference for moderation.
The extreme types have much to say about each other. High conformers say low conformers act too weird, too difficult to work with, too undependable, and they don’t want to work with them. “He took an important assignment and developed a brilliant solution to a problem I never gave him.” (Interestingly, low conformers say the same thing about other low conformers, effectively isolating themselves from most people.)
In contrast, low conformers say high conformers act like sticks in the mud, red tape bureaucrats, uptight, narrow-minded people who spoil everyone’s creative thinking. As expected, low conformers say they do not want to work with high conformers.
Is it any wonder that work groups require moderate conformers to manage them? As a leader, help low and high conformers respect each other’s unique contributions. Get them to recognize each other’s value and understand that each type does necessary jobs that the other dislikes. The high conformer loves digging in one place, while the low conformer abhors it. The low conformer loves to leap around, nibbling here and there, looking for the best place to dig. Not so the high conformer. Thus you need both types to succeed. And you need to act like a moderate conformer to manage them.
A TRUE STORY:
After I discussed this theory about low and high conformers in a workshop for a Fortune-500 company, one supervisor told me about a person working on a problem for over two years with no progress, probably a low conformer working on a problem that needed a high conformer. Six weeks later, I presented another workshop at the same location, and the manager of the work group told me that I had saved them a “bundle” of money. Apparently they “switched the nibbler (a low conformer) with a digger (a high conformer) and made more progress in six weeks than in the previous 2 1/2 years.”
Match the job to the style of the person. High conformers do best on conforming jobs, and low conformers do best on innovative jobs. Taking these personal preference styles into account increases the chances for a quality solutions at work.
LOW AND HIGH CONFORMERS CAN HELP EACH OTHER
Discuss this openly with your team. Make high and low conformers aware of their importance to produce quality outputs. Make them proud of what they uniquely accomplish and contribute. After all, the high conformer provides the solid foundation for the low conformer’s risky activities, while the low conformer provides the impetus for periodic change to avoid complacency and stagnation. Thus, when collaborating, high conformers supply stability and continuity, while low conformers supply the break with past traditions and accepted norms. Excellence can result from a collaboration between both types.
LEAD THE LOW CONFORMER IN YOUR WORK UNIT CREATIVELY
Most managers manage the high conformer relatively easily. High conformers work well in teams and cooperate with policies and work group norms. Low conformers require different approaches. With some exceptions, low conformers tend to stay loners and need special conditions to operate effectively.
The low conformer, as a work group member, clashes when working with logical, linear thinkers. Low conformers suffocate in rigid cultures and cause distress to other people: they perceive others as destructive to their innovative efforts. They become impatient with routine repetitive jobs, and this often results in premature task termination. They irritate or alienate other people with their intense drive, their focus on pet projects, and their idiosyncrasies. Easily isolated, colleagues often perceive them as self-serving loners and disruptive to efforts of the work group. Low conformers can suffer from loneliness, isolation, and feeling different.
If you, the leader, act as a low conformer, you often find leadership activities uninteresting and irritating. People may perceive you as isolated, impractical, and lacking in follow-through. You may develop interpersonal barriers with people in your own work group and avoid giving important coaching and feedback, and may avoid important aspects of your job. Often unwilling to delegate, and impatient with day-to-day operating details, the low-conforming leader may become impulsive and perceived by other people as erratic, condescending, and distracted. In addition, the low-conformer leader can feel superior to others and become highly dictatorial.
Every low conformer exists as a majority of one. Easily bored, they would rather move into untried areas not worrying about risk or troubled by ambiguity. Uninterested in social matters, they may lack social skills. They want to use their minds to solve difficult, personally fulfilling problems. They experience their work as a calling. When working in unexplored areas, they do well without support or approval from others.
Leading low conformers in your work group requires a special capacity for patience and good will. Some approaches make it a little easier, but do not expect miracles. Bright low conformers can overwhelm, so develop a unique style for each low conformer in your work group.
• Encourage low conformers in your work group to use the motivating catalysts that stimulate their work.
• Let your low conformers help you and the work group get out of routine complacency.
• Make sure low conformers know the objectives of the team so they work toward similar goals.
• Tolerate their honesty.
• Let the low conformers know that you consider them respected, valuable members of the team.
• Accept the low conformer’s firm stance without calling them stubborn.
• Help the low conformers in your work group see the progress they have made when depressed and discouraged.
• Do not interpret the low conformer’s continual dissatisfaction as disloyalty.
• Enjoy the low conformer’s bizarre ideas.
• Tolerate the flow of ideas without asking the low conformers in your work group to settle on one too early.
• Resist urging them to seek early solutions to problems, the quick fix.
• Do not burden the low conformers in your work group with suggestions that slow them down when hot on the trail of a solution.
• Keep the facilities low conformers need open at all times.
• Accept the low conformer’s independence and do not take offense when they go ahead without asking your advice.
• Provide rewards that you can tailor to their choice.
• Help prevent them from wearing other people out.
• Interact with low conformers without formality.
• Get their input, but don’t try to make them a team player.
• Accept the low conformer’s fantasies and do not accuse them of being unrealistic.
• Help low conformers sell their proposals and make them relevant.
• Respect their periods of isolation.
• Help low conformers learn from their failures.
• Give them encouraging feedback concerning their ideas.
• Help provide the kinds of people interactions they need.
• Help set up work structures that accommodate their style.
• Help low conformers feel secure so they risk creative effort.
• Support low conformers when others criticize them.
• Provide for the stimulation low conformers need, especially from other professionals.
• Give low conformers enough time for the incubation process.
• Provide low conformers in your work group the support needed during the depressing episodes of the creative process.
Have a two-paths-up promotion system for low conformers.
And checkout my NEW 2016 book: “CREATIVITY FOR UNCREATIVE PEOPLE: How To Be More Creative Than You Think You Are.”
Ed Glassman, Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, founded the Program For Team Excellence And Creativity at the university. He led scores of problem-solving creativity meetings and creative thinking workshops-seminars for many large and small companies. He was a ‘Guggenheim Foundation Fellow’ at Stanford University, a ‘Visiting Fellow’ at the ‘Center For Creative Leadership’ in Greensboro, NC, a Visiting Professor at the University Of California at Irvine, and a Visiting Scientist at SRI International.