What is conformity? (Plus how it applies in the workplace)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 13 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Social behaviour in the workplace is key to an effective workforce and viable progress throughout your career. The way you interact with your workmates can affect the way you learn, your effectiveness throughout your work and even the way that you view yourself outside the office. Conformity can be a key aspect of these interactions in the workplace. In this article, we answer the question, 'What is conformity?', identify the effect it has on individuality in the workplace and look at how managers interact with the concept of conformity.

What is conformity?

If you're asking yourself, 'What is conformity?', it's a social influence impacting the behaviour and beliefs of an individual. By adopting certain aspects of these, they can more easily fit into a wider group. A simpler definition of conformity is that it's yielding to group pressures, whether in formal or informal scenarios. As individual behaviour shifts in alignment with group norms, conformity in the workplace increases.

What categories of pressures are there?

There are several categories of pressure affecting conformity and its impact on a workplace. These include the nature of the pressure and the source of the pressure, which influence individuals in different ways depending on their unique situations. Below are the four key categories of pressure and how they each impact individuality in the workplace.

1. Societal

Societal pressures impact an individual and come from society as a whole. For example, societal norms can lead to an individual emphasising certain aspects of their personality. Pressures from wider society are often the result of years of traditions and the population's behaviour over many generations. A lot of this can come from how a culture has interacted with others over time.

2. Workplace or small group

The second type of pressure originates in smaller groups such as workplaces and in social settings. The pressures in this instance are less constant than societal pressures, but follow the same trends. Conversely, workplaces and social groups develop their own unique biases due to the composition of the group. Pressures in the workplace may feel more targeted due to the smaller size of the group, as opposed to larger societal norms or pressures.

Related: Important workplace social skills

3. Real

Real social pressures involve the physical presence of others. In this case, you might be aware of a norm like a certain dress code. This can help you to determine how you can dress to better fit in with the group, solely based on a physical factor like this. In some instances, members of a group might comment upon the choices of those who aren't conforming, which can be a form of pressure to conform physically.

4. Imagined

An imagined pressure is one that you implicitly derive from a series of other factors, and can affect how you feel. You can often experience these in the absence of another party, and they can often be inaccurate. There's also little or no commentary or explicit pressure to conform, which can make it a challenge to understand how to do so. Such pressures are often quite subtle, like the use of a certain kind of language or a prevailing sense of humour in a group.

What are the types of conformity?

Conformity involves behavioural adjustment according to external pressures. There are several types, methods and ways to conform. For instance, you can actively adopt other people's behaviours to fit in with the group or simply conceal certain characteristics that you feel would be out of place within that setting. For example, in a formal setting, you might outwardly conform with a certain dress code while also limiting your use of certain types of humour that might be considered inappropriate. Here are some other types of conformity:

Compliance

Compliance is a situation in which you accept the pressures exerted by external parties in order to achieve a favourable reaction from the group, intending to build better relationships with the people around you. This is typically in anticipation of specific rewards or benefits in the long term. Although external agreement with the majority is present, an internal agreement can be lacking. This means that compliance ends as soon as the immediate pressure leaves, allowing you to revert to your own ways and characteristics.

Example: Stephen is an introvert who prefers to stay home over going out. His employer implies that coming to the restaurant with the rest of the team improves his chances of progressing in the workplace. So, Stephen joins the rest of the team at the restaurant instead of going home after work. Outside the work environment, Stephen continues to avoid crowded areas in his free time, but he changes his behaviour when workmates are present.

Related: How to become a compliance officer: a step-by-step guide

Internalisation

Internalisation is when you accept the external influence that you experience because you agree with it. This is sometimes because you're convinced of it and sometimes because you receive rewards for the behaviour. Internalisation is a genuine form of conformity because it creates an actual change in you that's often permanent or at least long-lasting. This can often be the case when you're in a group that has more experience or knowledge.

Example: Anne comes from a background where environmental and similar concerns aren't a great issue. She moves to a larger city for work reasons and experiences the effects of pollution, while also interacting with colleagues who are supportive of sustainability efforts. Through numerous conversations, she begins to understand the necessity of adopting more sustainable approaches, like carpooling and eco-conscious purchasing decisions. Over a period of months, she gradually changes her habits as she becomes more convinced. As a consequence, her values and priorities shift accordingly and she begins to encourage others to do the same.

Identification

Identification occurs when an individual accepts influence as a way of retaining or building a positive relationship with another person, or to become part of a group that has a certain identity. This often involves changing your behaviour and even outward appearance to conform to the norms of the group. As a result, you become less outwardly different and assume the group's identity as part of your own. Certain professions or workplace cultures can encourage this type of conformity.

Example: Michael spent most of his time in a traditional corporate environment where everybody wore plain suits. He accepts a managerial position at another company that has a less strict dress code. Despite this, his new colleagues share some common features. Each expresses their own preferences through dress, but the prevailing theme is brighter colours. Michael starts to buy new clothes so he can change from his old suits, and finds himself choosing brighter colours to become more like his new colleagues. The sense of belonging to a group identity makes him feel included and more social.

Ingratiating

Ingratiating conformity is a situation in which an individual conforms for a favourable opinion or acceptance from another, rather than a clearer reward. In the long-term, social rewards are likely and they're mostly intangible. This is quite common when someone wants to please a manager or someone they look up to. In the beginning, they may do this solely to become more acceptable to another, although with time it can become more internalised.

Example: Sharon is new in her workplace, and although she has job security, her friendships are uncertain. Sharon adjusts her behaviour to match that of the most popular individuals in the workplace, despite this differing from her natural behaviour. Sharon ingratiates herself to the social group in the workplace, quickly establishing herself among a new group of friends.

Is conformity always positive?

Conformity can be both positive and negative, depending on the individual, their circumstances and the nature of the change. In many cases, you may find that you learn about people by conforming to some extent. You can also discover new things about yourself. The important thing is to ensure that your own identity remains and that any changes are voluntary and bring you some sense of value.

There's also a lot of value in diversity, and this requires conformity to remain moderate. In a healthy scenario, you may adopt new things to fit in with another group while also bringing something new that can benefit others. It's also important that groups of individuals be understanding of those who want to retain more of their own identity.

Related: On-the-job training examples (with benefits and tips)

What is nonconformity?

Nonconformity is when you don't change to fit into a group, thereby retaining your own practices and views. This is often an active choice, although some people may be naturally resistant to this change as part of their personality. This can also be either negative or positive. A non-conforming person can change a group of people for the better, although if they're refusing to conform to positive aspects of the group, this can make interactions difficult.

Nonconformity can also become more likely if a group is particularly insistent on others conforming. A natural reaction might be to refuse altogether. This is why it's important to respect people's identities and allow groups of different people to naturally adapt to each other in a mutually respectful manner.

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