Do you conform easily, or are you a low conformer?
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 style of innovative outcomes your work group creates.
Work groups generally insist on conformity to norms, rules, customs, and policies. High conformers tend to conform to the work group requirements and 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, tend not to conform and 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.
HOW TO IDENTIFY HIGH AND LOW CONFORMERS AT WORK
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 other people, work to maintain team cohesion, teamwork, and cooperation. Do these traits fit you or co-workers?
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 co-workers?
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 CONFORMER TYPE EXISTS
People in the middle range of conformance, moderate conformers, 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 TO 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 effectively? 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 help you succeed. And you need to act like a moderate conformer to manage them.
MATCH THE JOB TO THE CONFORMANCE 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 when assigning work tasks increases the chances for quality solutions of problems at work.
LOW AND HIGH CONFORMERS CAN HELP EACH OTHER
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 leaders 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 THE LEADER IS A LOW CONFORMER…
If you, the leader are 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 PERSON
Easily bored, the low conformer 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.
And now, a very special conformance question…
IS PRESIDENT TRUMP A HIGH CONFORMER, A LOW CONFORMER, OR A MODERATE CONFORMER ???
For more information on conformance issues at work, check out my 2016 book: “CREATIVITY FOR UNCREATIVE PEOPLE:
How To Be More Creative Than You Think You Are.”
©2017 by Edward Glassman
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ed Glassman, Ph.D. 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.