We all say we value creativity and fresh thinking, but in practice these qualities can make our lives more complicated. No wonder studies show that teachers, despite their protestations to the contrary, actually dislike creative students and prefer the dutiful and obedient.

The same holds true in the world of business. Bosses may jump up and down about the need for more innovation, but research actually shows that in practice, managers generally tend to discourage creativity. Nonconforming, creative individuals are a handful, after all, and present more challenges for those who lead them.

But, according to an in-depth new HBR article, it's well worth enduring the unconventional antics and sometimes annoying questions of rebels and other nonconformists. Companies are obsessed with conformity, and it's hurting them big time, Harvard professor Francesca Gino argues in the thought-provoking piece.

Too much conformity is bad for business

"In a recent survey I conducted of more than 2,000 employees across a wide range of industries, nearly half the respondents reported working in organizations where they regularly feel the need to conform, and more than half said that people in their organizations do not question the status quo. The results were similar when I surveyed high-level executives and midlevel managers," she reports.

If you've ever worked in a corporate job, you're probably not shocked. But even if it's self-evident that this conformity can be a drag for workers, why is it a problem for the business overall?

Gino outlines a whole body of research that shows this need to hide your true self at work makes people less committed to their jobs, less engaged, less satisfied, and more likely to feel burnt out or be looking for another gig. In short, pushing people to obey too many formal and informal rules saps them of their energy, creativity, and commitment. And that can't be good for your bottom line (or your day-to-day happiness).

How to run a company of rule breakers

Of course, you can't run a team or a company where all your employees are loose cannons, setting their own agendas without coordination or stepping on one another's feet as they pursue their own ends. Some rules and procedures must be followed, and we all need to repress our impulses enough to get along decently. But, according to Gino, the pendulum has swung way too far toward law and order. Bosses, she asserts, need to encourage a little more rebellion and a lot less conformity.

How? The complete article offers a deep dive into the subject, but here, in brief, are a few of Gino's many suggestions, in her own words (links to further reading are mine).

  • Tell employees what job needs to be done rather than how to do it.
  • Let employees define their missions.
  • Tailor jobs to employees' strengths.
  • Ask "Why?" and "What if?"
  • Stress that the company is not perfect.
  • Maximize variety.
  • Continually inject novelty into work.
  • Hire people with diverse perspectives.
  • Design processes to include dissent.
  • Ask, "What information suggests this might not be the right path to take?"

Check out the complete article for tons of examples and lots more detail.

Do you agree with Gino that most companies radically overvalue conformity?

Published on: Nov 21, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.