Harvard Business School professor and recent Future Talent conference 2021 keynote speaker, Francesca Gino, offers her insights into the powers of nonconformity at work.
A few years ago, I was asked to teach two back-to-back, ninety-minute executive education classes at Harvard Business School. About a hundred business, government, and philanthropic leaders from more than a dozen cities would participate in each of the two sessions, hoping to refine their negotiation and influence skills. This is a topic I regularly teach at the executive level, and one that participants generally find valuable, as the applications to real-world settings are easy to see.
For those teaching executive-level classes at HBS, expectations are always high. As a professor, you are well aware of the students’ time being especially precious, and you certainly don’t want to waste it. Often, they are a tough crowd to please, clock-conscious and deeply experienced. In addition to wanting my students to learn, I also want their respect; after all, if they see me as influential and high in status, they will be more likely to listen closely and remember what I teach.
The class I was about to lead typically requires hours of preparation. I needed to be clear, professional, direct — and properly dressed. Not being a big fan of skirts, my dress code for executive teaching consists of a conservative suit over a blouse or dress shirt, and a pair of dressy leather shoes.
Experiments in sartorial rebelliousness
But the back-to-back sessions I would be teaching to two sets of students were exactly the same, so I decided to use the day as an opportunity for a little experiment on the effects of attire on status determinations. Specifically, during the break after the first class, I slipped off my leather shoes and laced up a pair of red Converse sneakers. Just imagine: I was wearing a dark blue Hugo Boss suit, a white silk blouse, and a pair of very red, very non-dressy shoes. Colleagues gave me strange looks as I made my way back to the classroom.
It is often difficult to tell whether students are engaging with the material and enjoying your classes. But I could sense a tangible difference between the two classes that day: The red-sneakers class seemed more attentive and thoughtful, and they laughed more. Part of the difference, I realised, was likely due not only to the sneakers, but to the effect they had on me. I didn’t feel more self-conscious, despite the reaction of my colleagues. Rather, I felt more confident. Even though I was teaching brand-new material, I felt more certain about its effectiveness, more poised when leading discussions, and more adept when making transitions.
At the end of each session that day, I asked the students to complete a short survey assessing my professional status and competence. For instance, I asked them to guess at my status within the school and how likely my research was to be featured in the Harvard Business Review. Interestingly, the students viewed me as having greater status when I wore the red shoes. They also thought my consulting rate was higher. All thanks to a pair of red sneakers.
The powers of nonconformity
After the second session, I bounced back to my office thinking the red-sneakers test was worth expanding on. So I devised an experiment in which I invited college students to complete a task that most of us would view as stressful (at least, without a few beers): singing the Journey song Don’t Stop Believin' in front of an audience of peers. Before the performance, I asked half the students to wear something that they agreed would make them feel uncomfortable — namely, a bandana wrapped around their heads. (The bandana, I expected, would serve as the nonconforming behaviour — the headgear version of my red sneakers.) The other group did not wear a bandana. With help from the karaoke machine, I measured note-hitting accuracy, as well as heart rate and confidence. The bandanna-wearing students sang better, had significantly lower heart rates, and also reported feeling more confident.
We all have opportunities to boost our confidence through nonconforming behaviours. In another study, I recruited a few hundred employees from different companies and asked some of them to behave in nonconforming ways at work over the next three weeks, such as voicing their disagreements with their colleagues’ decisions, expressing their true ideas or feelings rather than those they were expected to have, or proposing ideas that colleagues might find unconventional.
I asked others to behave in conforming ways for three weeks, such as staying quiet and nodding along even when they disagreed with a colleague’s decision. And then I asked another set of individuals, the control group, to behave as usual during this time. After the three weeks had passed, members of the first group indicated that they felt more confident and engaged in their jobs than members of the other two groups. They were also more creative when completing a task I gave them as part of a three-week follow-up survey, and their supervisors rated them higher on both innovativeness and performance.
Why allowing small acts of rebellion can actually make for a happier life
Nonconformity can enhance not only our professional lives, but our personal lives as well. When hanging out with friends, we’ve all found ourselves nodding along during a discussion, even when we seriously disagree with the argument being made. And at times, we may express emotions we don’t feel just to please those close to us. Or we might dress to fit in with a group, or order the same dish as our date even if we’d rather have something different. In research similar to my field study on employees and conformity, I asked a large group of college and MBA students to behave in ways that were conforming or nonconforming in their personal lives outside of work for a few weeks. The results of engaging in nonconforming behaviours were equally beneficial in the students’ personal lives.
Nonconforming behaviours (such as expressing true preferences in social circles rather than going along with majority opinion) improved their happiness in their day-to-day interactions. Interestingly, the participants had predicted just the opposite.
Despite our differences, we all share the desire to be happy. What my research suggests is that we can actually bring more joy into our lives by being rebels: by behaving in ways that defy conformity. And something as simple as a pair of red sneakers might make all the difference.
From REBEL TALENT by Francesca Gino Copyright © 2018 by Francesca Gino. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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