On a recent trip to Copenhagen, I was reminded of a set of very Danish cultural norms known as Jante Law. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it boils down to this: "you are no better than anyone else here." Interestingly, the idea was introduced to the Danes in a fictional novel written in the 1930s and it just stuck. The 10 rules that comprise Jante Law in the book are said to be based an ancient Norse culture. But, that "fact" is a subject of debate. Nonetheless, these informal rules are very much a part of the Danish culture today--you're taught from an early age not to stand-out.
After some contemplation, I recognized that it's really not that unusual to feel a societal push to conform. Certainly, it's part of the essential underpinnings of any civil society. Yet, too much insistence on conformity, can have a very negative impact. Consider the negative consequences that peer pressure has on youngsters growing up and you're sure to agree with the point.
Interestingly, similar cultural norms requiring conformity are alive and well within many contemporary organizations. An overemphasis on conformity can stifle innovation, growth and transformation. If staff members under-perform for fear of negative repercussions from co-workers, your organization will suffer. Leaders, within such firms, must stamp this out or be willing to live with the standard mediocrity that results.
Here are 5 cultural shifts worth the effort to make:
1. From the "conform or move on" to "we reward individual performance": This can be enabled through the proper combination of measurement and reward systems. Use the measurement programs to weed-out lower performers. Use reward programs to compensate high performers.
2. From "don't show off" to "we value innovative thinking": By giving your innovators the opportunity to move-up in the organization is one way to inspire new ways of thinking and doing. Promotional opportunities should include both leadership and individual contributor roles to accommodate, both, those that have what it takes to lead and those that are best left to contribute their ideas and knowledge.
3. From "seniority begets preferential treatment" to "results bring recognition": Introducing recognition programs that commend those that deliver extraordinary results is a means to promote the idea that results matter more than how hard you work or how long you've been here.
4. From "that's how we do it here" to "let's give this a try": Most business practices get handed down from one generation of worker to the next. It's folklore and legend that underpin much of the "musts" in many businesses. Enabling your people to question the status quo and introduce new ways of doing things goes a long way in breaking down the peer pressure to conform.
5. From "don't stand-out" to "we celebrate personal differences": Much has been written on the subject of diversity and inclusion and the positive effects that it has on an organization that values differences in its staff. Introducing programs that recognize and celebrate differences will allow your people to bring their individual strengths to the work at hand, which will result in a net gain for your enterprise.
To close, there is a delicate balance to be forged between the need to have your staff conform to the cultural norms of your organization and providing your team with the room that is needed to enable them to engage in the breakthrough thinking that can separate your business from the rest of the herd. If you think that your organization is suffering from internal peer pressure, then it's time to take on the cultural shifts outlined above. Please be sure to call on me if you need some help. This column can be an effective forum to exchange ideas and consider solutions.
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