Follow Up to “The Modern Woman – Standing Out”

Guest post from Jonathan Shan, Masters Candidate in Industrial-Organizational Psychology.

Follow Up to The Modern Woman – Standing Out 

My friend Tiffany and I were at a coffee shop back in late October and our conversation led to the discussion of how women in the workforce are stuck in a confidence/self-esteem bind, and how companies are faced with a spectrum of approaches ranging from passively and permissively allowing gender discrimination and inequality, to meeting the minimum effort in order to achieve legal coverage, to creating exclusive women events that may be polarizing by creating social in-groups/out-groups. Tiffany went ahead and blogged about how women can face the music here and asked me to do a follow-up piece here from an I/O Psychology perspective.

The Conformity Conundrum 

Conformity is described as simply the change in a person’s behavior or opinion as a result of external pressures. We mostly all face the same way when we’re going up an elevator, we typically sit in bleachers filled with our own basketball team fans, and we want to share similar feelings interests and much more. We are trying to fulfill our need for relatedness (within Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, our social and self-esteem/ego needs). That warm fuzzy feeling of belonging to something.

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From a personality theory framework, the Agreeableness trait within the Five Factor Model (AKA “The Big Five”) can best account for conformity, as the attributes associated with the high levels of agreeableness include being cooperative, likable, and trusting.

Within the workplace, conformity it is a dual edged sword where on one hand organizations want “team-players” who get along well within groups, and on the other hand being a conformist runs counter to American cultural values that celebrates the rugged individualist. If I cued: “non-conformist” you would probably think of MLK, Ghandi, Steve Jobs and anyone else you were ready to use for your SAT writing prompt. Great people who did extraordinary things because they didn’t conform, yet to what level can we reconcile and leverage our uniqueness within the workforce? Even Jobs’ tenure was fraught with controversy and diverging visions on the future of Apple, which at one point led to his ouster.

How can women find ways to manage the balance of not conforming to the good-ol’-boys club (System Justification Theory), and yet not be unfairly perceived as domineering, selfish, and overbearing?

Identity, Self-Esteem and Likeability 

Some people view the workplace as a stage where everyone is an actor playing a different role, while others view such an approach as a betrayal of the authentic self. Most people try to find the middle ground in establishing an identity that accommodates for the demands of the work climate yet expresses their personality. People who try to maintain a facade that runs counter to their personality may find that the amount of effort they have to do so is fatiguing (Ego Depletion Theory). What happens to your coworkers perceptions of you when they find out you are much different than who you made yourself out to be?

Identity is heavily mediated by self-esteem within the workplace. Self-esteem is important because having extremely low self-esteem leads to over-conformity and can result in poor responses to negative feedback, whereas moderate to high self-esteem leads to better coping and ability to take on challenges. Individuals within organizations that have a high level of emotional resilience will better be able to meet the challenges that arise.

As Tiffany states, likability should come secondary to self-esteem. Establish the self-esteem through content mastery, become the subject matter expert (the go-to person when questions come up).

Once you’ve demonstrated competence, show organizational-citizenship behaviors (such as helping others outside of your job description) and your colleagues will come to respect you more for what you can bring to the table.

When you know what needs to be done, find a source of drive. Sheryl Sandberg’s statement about taking ownership of work mirrors what  Salman Khan (Founder of Khan Academy) said in an interview when asked how to motivate students within an academic setting. This can be achieved through Job Characteristics Theory, which states that intrinsic motivation will occur when an individual has autonomy and a choice in determining the outcome, when the job is meaningful and the efforts matter to someone, and when there’s feedback provided to help guide them towards their goals.

Organizational Justice

Tiffany talked about how men respond negatively to women-only events and programs in the workplace, and this ties back to a larger debate over affirmative action, where companies have had to consider whether they should pursue the goal of correcting present iniquities or compensating past inequities  (Campbell, 1996) or a combination of the two. The biggest challenge is in implementing something that is exclusive to a certain group is the perception of organizational injustice.

Fair treatment of employees by organizations has important effects on individual employee attitudes, such as satisfaction and com- mitment, and on individual behaviors, such as absenteeism and citizenship behavior (Simons & Roberson as cited in Muchinsky, 2009), therefore creating programs that have good intentions may in the end foster a more counterproductive work environment. Here, stakeholders such as women should see that the company is in fact creating an environment that is equitable and offers equal pay and performance rewards irregardless of gender.

Action Questions

On conformity…

  • Commitment – Who do you want to be within the workplace? Are you willing to compromise your integrity or self-respect if they are challenged?
  • Accountability –  The best decision makers were those who cared about doing their best and had to explain their nonconformity to the people whose influence they resisted. Who do you answer to at the end of the day?
  • Communication – people should understand who you are, what your values are, where you draw the line. How can you make this clear to people without marginalizing yourself?

On self-esteem…

  • Identification – Can you identify the things holding you back?
  • Content Mastery – What do you need to establish competence to boost your belief in your abilities?
  • Support – Who can you draw strength from? Who can offer mentoring opportunities and provide you with help along the way?

On drive…

  • Purpose – Are you able to find meaning in your job and how it fits within the bigger company picture? Can you increase your skill set?
  • Autonomy – Does your manager/supervisor allow you a level of autonomy? Are you allowed to make some decisions on your own? What steps can you take to be granted such privileges?
  • Feedback – Are you getting constructive growth-oriented feedback?

More from Jonathan Shan here!


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