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20 years ago, when I was the president of a company prior to starting Clockwork, we had a client relationship that went great. Until it didn’t. Misunderstandings between the client team and our team arose, and it became a situation that anyone in the service industry can relate to. After thoughtful discussion, we managed to iron things out. In that process of ironing, the client’s CEO offered to coach me—she wanted to work with me to smooth out my rough edges and help me develop a stronger “executive presence.” At the time, I already had mentors and was involved in executive peer groups, which was enough to show me that I was never going to fit the executive mold. And I was okay with that.
What struck me was that within this conflict between teams, she didn’t just disagree with how things unfolded nor did she simply not like my style—that happens. But she thought I should be different. Not myself. Among all the lessons she could have learned or relationships she could have built as a result of a tough but eventually positive situation, she opted to focus on my “executive presence.” I declined the offer, but the experience—and all the presumptions and expectations she projected onto me—has stuck with me throughout my tenure as a CEO.
Lately, many leaders are talking about the future of work. They’re talking about wanting new thinking, fresh perspectives, continuous innovation, cultural diversity, and evolved ways of working, all to make their companies better and stronger for our uncertain future. There’s a lot of talking, but I don’t actually engage with many leaders or companies that are doing anything all that new.
I think back to my coaching “opportunity” when I wonder why “new” and “fresh” don’t actually happen at companies when so many leaders are so desperate for it.
In most contemporary workplaces, expectations of professionalism manifest subtly, but they are weighty and significant. There is a very particular leader persona, and we’re all aware of how we should dress, talk, and act to fit that mold. These expectations form the foundation of our daily professional interactions and barometers of achievement. They shape how we speak, communicate, and present ourselves, and affect the energy we bring to work. This web of expectations has actually become an oppressive system that we can’t even see anymore because it’s simply what we all believe to be professional.
This system is really only good at one thing: not uplifting good leaders or preparing people to lead from wherever they are; it’s good at perpetuating the status quo. And it’s one of the reasons companies can’t organically develop new ways of working or innovating in this new era. Status quo stifles new, and is an obstacle to risk-taking. While much of corporate America is trying to build muscles of resilience and innovation, they are also trying to maintain outdated systems that are in their way.
The expectations and norms are unspoken, but they dictate a very myopic range of acceptable behavior and appearance. They push organizations, which are really just groups of humans, toward a more homogenized identity that aligns with all of the traditions. It's why many corporate environments feel the same. That sort of uniform approach, while it feels benign to the point of us not even noticing it, has profound implications for how creative we are and how much space we have to think differently. Environments with rigid norms stifle creative thinking and discourage risk-taking. And research very clearly shows that creativity and risk-taking are essential elements of progress.
This system actually mirrors societal power structures and norms. As a result, it's a barrier to opportunity for individuals and a barrier to innovation for organizations. Really, it's a barrier to the future of work that we all claim to have much interest in.
The reality is that in mixed environments like offices, there is no such thing as uniformity, there is only conformity. If everyone is acting in a similar way, it’s because they’ve been implicitly or explicitly encouraged to do so. I’ve gotten good at it now, too. I show up in boardrooms and behave in ways I know will be palatable for others. In ways that will make others comfortable enough to ensure that who I am doesn’t get in the way of getting work done.
Rigid workplace expectations take a real toll on people. When someone feels like they're not living up to expectations or like there's a set of rules that aren't written anywhere but still make them feel judged or unaccepted, it leads to stress and anxiety. They can form a feeling of insecurity or disconnectedness. When people feel pressure to conform, which is what I felt trying to build a career in those early days, it affects their mental health. It also affects their ability to actually show up well and contribute to the growth and opportunities within an organization.
So what can we do?
Examine Our Implicit Biases
Many of us who have adapted to the norms unconsciously judge others who haven’t. It’s a bit of internalized prejudice. Like, “I've embraced these norms, and I'm comfortable here now. You should be too, and it’s your fault if you're not.” That sounds extreme, but the unconscious parts of our brains and our tendency to like “fitting in” can result in us being more judgmental than we might like. These implicit biases show up in our hiring practices. They show up in our willingness to mentor, lead, or accept new ideas. Ultimately, they show up in every interaction we have with others, so we’re nearly constantly spreading our judgment around the workplace. There’s no magic for getting rid of them, but becoming more aware of when and how our unconscious biases show up is a start.
Recognize Diversity Adds Value—to Business and to Our Experience
Having access to a diverse set of viewpoints offers us all a healthy amount of ‘new.’ Especially new ways of thinking about our businesses and new ways of approaching decisions and opportunities with different inputs. Yet, overarching corporate culture is often perpetuated by people who are comfortable and like things “as they’ve always been.” This can diminish how much everyone values different types of contribution. But we’re all trainable; humans are wired to learn. We have an opportunity to help people (and ourselves) be more aware and sensitive to how they are projecting their expectations on other people, thereby squelching creativity.
Reimagine How We Show Up
Our collective leadership and management styles are stuck in the past, but so are many of our daily professional habits. In addition to challenging the expectations we’re projecting onto others, we have to challenge the expectations we’re putting on ourselves to “behave” and do things “right.” When and how were these ways established? Do they serve you, and the outcomes you’re seeking? In abandoning some of those old ways of thinking, we could actually encourage more individuality and authenticity, which leaders claim to want from their employees but don’t know how to cultivate.
When I was that young leader, I received signals all the time that I wasn't right. I still do. At the time, I certainly had some maturing to do; now, I know there will always be areas for growth. But then and now, my flavor of leadership is equally as valuable and valid as any other. I know that it doesn’t line up with the industrial-era, stereotypical image of the corporate executive. Hell, I don’t even align with the image of a corporate worker, let alone an executive. But I'm more relatable and effective as my authentic self than if I try to fit into a box created by others and perpetuated over time. We all are. It’s important that we value individuality—it’s the only way to break free from conformity.
What we need is a human transformation as much (or more so) as the digital transformations that companies are so focused on. A transformative journey toward more inclusive and dynamic workplaces that embrace differences without making people conform to a set of homogenized expectations.
Humans require space to be who they are if they’re going to bring their best to any setting, especially a professional one in which stakes are high and where we really want to do well. Giving space to all people with all perspectives and with all lived experiences will require that we shift our individual mindsets. It requires us to really want to challenge the status quo that currently encourages us to conform and to offer good ideas that push back on uniformity. It requires each of us to embrace new ways of thinking, working, and leading and to recognize leadership potential regardless of title.
It's not just about changing policies but reimagining what it means to be a professional in the modern work world, and the power of thinking differently that can come from different people working together. Shifting to that way of thinking is an important step in creating a future of work in which talent (us humans) and creativity are seen, heard, valued, and nurtured.