Beware of conformity

Tom Mom researches workplace camaraderie. What has he discovered? Friendship among co-workers is important, but there’s a tipping point. “It should not result in uncritical group conformity.”

TEXT: Suzanne Rethans

 

New business development requires an exploratory mindset. A logical research question, therefore, would be: how do you foster this mindset?  

Having a good network within your organisation turns out to be very important in this respect. Tom Mom: “The larger the network, the more often its members encounter new ideas.” And when the network is characterised by trust, perhaps even genuine friendliness, then the sharing of information will naturally be even greater. “Colleagues will approach each other without hesitation, and will find it easier to say things like: hey, this looks like your area of specialty — what can you tell us about it? The one being approached will also be more willing to take the time to share what he or she knows in greater detail. And in so doing, you make greater strides and break new ground as a team.”

 

Some companies believe that workplace competition is a great motivator, but that is a misconception with potentially disastrous consequences, warns Mom. “Foster a competitive corporate culture and people will guard their interests in isolation, trust no one and won’t collaborate with colleagues.” A logical response to companies in that situation, or to any company, in fact, would be to suggest they invest in group outings, encourage Friday afternoon drinks down the pub, sponsor corporate ski trips, and so on. But watch out: the beneficial effects of workplace camaraderie have a tipping point. And according to research, this occurs when the same group of people have been together for about a year and a half to two years. “When the bonds of friendship within a team are longer than this, the room for divergent opinions starts to diminish accordingly. It becomes a closed shop with a bias for group consensus rather than new ideas.”

“To keep teams fresh and motivated, it's wise to allow diversity of opinion”

How do you strike the right balance?

Managers must facilitate trust-building and cooperation, so that their employees share information willingly, but at the same time they must avoid allowing them to become so close that their thinking becomes uniform and no one dares break ranks. How do you achieve this? Ensure diversity with your teams, advises Mom. “Change the composition of your teams and move people around within your organisation, or let people participate in different teams, so there’s a continuous injection of new blood. You need diversity in age, specialisms and personality types.” In addition, it’s important to foster a corporate culture that allows for dissenting opinions. “People need to know that they’re allowed to learn by making mistakes. Diversity of opinion is a good thing. Life is moving faster and faster, and that demands continual responsiveness.”

Two-yearly changing of the guard

In addition to all of that, the corporate culture and identity mustn’t feel too imposing. “If you impose strict rules on your employees about how they must think and act, they won’t be motivated think for themselves.”

Finding the right balance can be hampered by factors such as competition within the industry. When this is fierce, companies often turn inwards and put all their energy into what they do best, whereas times like these are precisely when you should be looking to seize new opportunities, says Mom. “And the freedom to think differently is important then as it stimulates your employees’ desire to explore. It also helps organisations stay flexible and change direction, which involves a learning process that will be all the more difficult if you’ve gone collectively blind. That’s why you need a changing of the guard every two years at the very least. Companies that operate this way constitute many of today’s scale-ups. Young, fast-growing companies such as Coolblue, Takeaway and Young Capital. They keep their teams fresh and motivated.”

CV

  • NAME: Tom Mom

    EDUCATION: Master’s degree in strategic management (cum laude) from Erasmus University Rotterdam; master’s degree in international management (cum laude) from the Community of European Management Schools (CEMS) with an exchange year at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland; PhD in strategic management from the Rotterdam School of Management

    FUNCTION: Professor of Strategic Growth and Implementation at the Rotterdam School of Management