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Frank Sinatra inspired many when he sang about doing it My Way. But at work, we must do it their way. The need to conform can be suffocating, driven by rules and cultural norms.

British academics Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, in Why Should Anyone Work Here?, share six statements that can serve as a tool to assess how much your organization values your individuality. Rate each on a one-to-five scale, from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree."

  • I am the same person at home as I am at work.
  • I am comfortable being myself.
  • We are all encouraged to express our differences.
  • People who think differently do well here.
  • Passion is encouraged, even when it leads to conflict.
  • More than one type of person fits in here.

"It's difficult to do well in all six of them. Focus on where you are weak or the ones that are important," Prof. Goffee said in an interview.

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Their broader approach for developing an authentic, engaged organization is summed up in an acronym that he admits is "slightly cheesy" – DREAMS. It involves six broad initiatives that can make organizations successful: Differences, Radical honesty, Extra value (an organization that magnifies an employee's strengths), Authenticity, Meaning and Simple rules. But while organizations these days are attempting to speak with authenticity, meaning and purpose, few focus on the importance of letting people be themselves at work.

That means not just diversity – paying attention to gender, race, age and ethnicity – but finding and celebrating employees with differences in attitudes and mindset. In turn, that requires forgoing some degree of organizational process and structure, to allow variety.

He sees the problem in his field, academia, which traditionally has brought experts together with very different backgrounds and interests. "Even at universities, you see measurement systems and processes that, if we're not careful, can start homogenizing and pasteurizing," he said. Rules can proliferate: "Academics are very good at making things more complex than need be."

They note in the book there are two aspects of individuality to watch. The first, and more obvious, is allowing people to be themselves – to voice disagreement, show what they really care about and feel natural at work. But an equally important aspect of individuality is that the organization leverage the wide range of differences among staff.

He cites competency models and performance appraisals as formal ways that organizations can stifle individuality and promote conformity. But there's an informal barrier, as well: corporate culture. "If it's too strong, it can be a problem," he said. "We need a shift from people fitting [into] the existing culture to organizations having to fit around the individuals." We need organizations with overarching purpose and values, he said, but that tolerate and encourage different kinds of behaviour, since those will lead to creativity and innovation.

Sometimes, such different ideas and behaviour will lead to clashes. John Lennon and Paul McCartney weren't necessarily best friends, and had disagreements. But they were creative together. "The clash factor is important for creativity," he said.

Conflict can be cognitive, around ideas, or be more emotional. We tend to accept the former as fine, but view the latter as bad. Yet he feels that as long as the emotional differences are controlled, such conflict can be helpful for creativity. After all, emotional clashes can spring from passion, and we want people to be passionate about their work and ideas.

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At the same time, you can't be completely the same at work and at home. You take on different roles in those spheres. But you don't want people feeling they have to leave the best parts of themselves at home.

Translating this to practical actions for your company, the authors suggest:

  • Hire for differences – in people’s thought processes and life experiences, among other qualities. The trap is relying too heavily on search firms, whose lists don’t serve up varied people. Look in unusual places. When you encounter somebody unusual, hire immediately even if there’s no job open – it will pay off.
  • Don’t allow human resources to dominate recruitment selection and induction. Competency models can be too prescriptive – fitting people into boxes – or too complicated. Interview candidates more than once, so different executives can spend time with them and gather different perspectives.
  • Be more tolerant of differences and how they are expressed. Create times and places where people can express different views, and beware that you don’t drive discussion underground with your attitude in meetings.
  • Nurture the differences found in “characters.” Often these people, with unusual interests and an ability to connect with customers, may be viewed as inefficient or not following rules, but they help build your business by going above and beyond.
  • Design performance measures that allow for creative surprises and acknowledge different career development trajectories. Keep your appraisals open-minded and flexible. Build slack time into your organization so people can experiment.
  • Seek a consensus around values, but allow for individual creative expression. You need a basic level of cohesion but also need to be as tolerant as possible of differences.

Mr. Goffee stresses that small shifts in how you approach differences can have a big impact on your organizational success.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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