Celebrating individualism in the workplace
The whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, but that doesn't mean we should view and treat our workers as one and the same. Allowing your employees' idiosyncrasies to shine in the workplace is key to creating a thriving culture of creativity and entrepreneurialism.
Workplace culture is on nearly every people professional’s radar. The idea that the workforce is a collective identity – a singular being with an overarching way of doing things – means that there’s an unwritten yet expected code of behaviours, etiquette and politics.
I don’t need to go on to explain the long list of benefits a healthy culture has on an organisation (nor the risks a VUCA culture can present).
While we pay attention to the collective ‘personality’ of the workplace culture, we also need to be aware of the individual components that make this up – the personalities of individuals – and ensure we’re celebrating individualism. Overlook this aspect and we risk slipping further down the spiral of dehumanising employees, which we are often accused of doing.
We need to embrace employee personalities on an individual level to understand how they communally contribute to the singular personality of the organisation. Each employee has an influence on the workforce and those who work within it, and allowing people to be themselves in an environment where it’s safe to do so can only be a positive thing when it comes to workplace culture.
But with so many personalities out there, how can HR and people professionals celebrate individualism?
Encouraging individualism through policies
Policies are the blueprints for workplace culture so it seems fitting for us to consider these in the first instance. Such documents have an impact on the tone and ethos of how employees are managed - get these wrong and the culture becomes too bitter, resentful and unjust. Have them too restrictive and they become robotic and impersonal.
By identifying areas for flexibility in these policies, we can improve our chances of recognising individualism. Some policies are developed as a result of staff surveys (analysing what employees want), identifying flaws and gaps (as a result of a poorly managed case for example) or a generally agreed yet non-evidenced consensus (like the idea that everyone likes to work from home, which is an over-generalisation that isn’t accurate in all cases).
Allowing an employee to be more creative in their comparatively technical role is different to allowing an employee to be abusive to colleagues through their ‘sense of humour’.
There’s a battle between the application of lessons learned from specific and individual scenarios, and the application of broad-brushed generalisation, resulting in conflicting policy objectives and intentions.
If we’re to consider celebrating individualism in a policy context, we need to allow policies to be easily and unambiguously applied on a case-by-case basis.
This isn’t about allowing loopholes for managers to sneak employees around certain parts of a procedure. It’s about providing scope for enough flexibility to allow policies to function for employees both on an individual and collective basis while also maintaining a level of consistency.
Job design and individualism
Designing jobs that celebrate individualism isn’t necessarily about designing each and every single role around each individual’s personality. While we can look for opportunities to design or craft a role that fits around strengths and skills (so long as it’s equally beneficial to the business) there are other things we can do on a larger scale.
Allowing a greater opportunity for employee input to roles not only embraces their individualism (including their individual insight and opinion), but it also provides a degree of autonomy, empowerment and, in turn, greater job satisfaction. Relax how roles are defined and instead focus on how the role objectives enable a safe environment for this to happen while also getting the job done.
This ‘intrapreneurism’ can also help organisations evolve and adapt positively in response to the talent it holds. Untapped skills and underused strengths provide a potential for roles to adapt and broaden, resulting in diversification of team capabilities in order to be a truly agile and evolving organisation.
When we celebrate employee quirks and true personalities, we nurture a culture of acceptance and openness.
The damaging impact of management style incompatibility
Having looked at policies and job design, we need to now look at those who apply and orchestrate these - line managers. Or, more accurately, we need to look at line management style.
It’s one thing to have a strong grasp of the theory behind line management style and compatibility, but it’s another ensuring this theory is carried through to real life.
If we are to celebrate individualism at work and let personalities shine through the workforce, they need to be managed by someone whose management style complements this.
Personalities and positive traits can quickly be quashed and dampened by a manager with a conflicting management style, leading onto all manner of horrible things (underperformance, stress, depression, absence, conflict etc.).
I can make a strong assumption we have all been under the heavy cloud of incompatible line management, and if we’re to think about how this affected our personality and confidence to be ourselves, and the opportunities we missed out on by not being our best selves, just think of the benefits the organisation misses out on for every mismatch.
And let’s not forget about the personalities of line managers. We equally need them to be in an environment that allows them to manage in a style that’s comfortable to them, matches their personality but complements their team. Taking the time to assess line management styles and identifying compatible employees will benefit the workforce hugely. It’s a big task, but isn’t it worth the time and effort?
Personality tests can help start a conversation
Love them or hate them, personality tests can be used as a conversation starter between employees and their managers. Following up from my last point, these tests provide a narrative between individuals to help shine a light on why they feel the way they do.
By assessing the results of these psychometric tests, employees and their line managers get a better picture of their personality and can look to explore different approaches to work that complement their personality type. Even if these results don’t paint an accurate picture in your opinion, it still prompts a discussion that explains why the results aren’t accurate.
When we celebrate employee quirks and true personalities, we nurture a culture of acceptance and openness. Employees can come to work as their authentic selves and not feel that they have to hide who they are as a human being.
Granted there are certain aspects of personalities that can be seen as unacceptable, but these usually contravene any codes of conduct that are imposed by an employer.
Allowing an employee to be more creative in their comparatively technical role is different to allowing an employee to be abusive to colleagues through their ‘sense of humour’. Get the balance right though and we can really embrace and celebrate the personalities of our employees on an individual and collective basis.
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Charles Goff-Deakins is a senior HR policy specialist and a member of the CIPD with HR and managerial experience from the private and public sectors. He is a HR policy lead, author of the book 'HR Beyond the Theory', HR feature writer, career development blogger and editor, international speaker, and a hungry learner. He also founded the career...