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Creativity vs. Conformity – A View of Culture

March 29, 2012

This week I’m in glamorous trashy flashy Las Vegas attending the Ultimate Connections Conference with a whole bunch of other Ultimate Software users.  Great variety of topics available – ranging from the tech/geektastic to HR practices to employee engagement to User Group meetings.

I attended a session yesterday called “Should Organizations Accommodate Employees or Expect Them to Adapt to Corporate Culture?” presented by Bill Doucette, a VP of HR from Illinois.  He led us through the evolution, and solidification, of culture at his organization over the last dozen years (4 CEOs!). 

During his presentation he spoke about some of the issues his organization tackled such as what are the assumptions that both organizations and employers have about organizational culture (both in general and specifically within their company) and how to connect that employer view and that employee view.  He posed the question – how does one find the right balance between creativity and conformity?

In our speaker’s experience, his organization defined the culture, the values, norms and behaviors that were important and moved down the path to embed that culture.  They were pretty clear in their belief that individuals needed to “actively and seriously look at how they can change to better support the organization’s culture.”  And he made the point that employees need to ‘buy into’ culture at the individual level in order to move it to their work group, team, department and the macro-company level.

OK.  Agreed – it all begins with me. But…….

People are amazing because they’re unique.   They have their talents and their idiosyncrasies; their foibles and their seemingly-super-human powers.   Having the ability to come into contact with and work with a vast array of employees is what excites us and keeps so many of us working in Human Resources. 

When we bring any one of these marvelously unique individuals into our organization, we’re introducing a new fish into our aquarium.  That fish, placed in our fairly tranquil environment, slightly disrupts the water. There’s an initial splash when the fish enters the water.  As he sinks down to the bottom there’s further disturbance, causing the other fish to skitter about frantically, their googly-little eyes darting around until, calmness restored, they settle back into languid leisurely swimming patterns. But that new fish, merely by its entry, changed the environment forever – perhaps imperceptibly, but changed it nonetheless. 

So then imagine what happens when we introduce another fish. And then one more.  Or perhaps we take a plastic baggie full of newbie-fishies and drop in the whole lot at once. 



When I was in 3rd grade I had a black fish with big bug-eyes named Hog who lived in a fishbowl on my bedroom dresser.  I was certain he was lonely all by himself and convinced my mother that he absolutely needed a friend and so could we please, please, please go and get him a companion.  Off we went to the pet store where I picked up a lovely orange-hued goldfish and the next day I went off to school, content in the knowledge that Hog had someone to keep him company.

I came home from school that afternoon to an absolutely horrifying scene of fish carnage.

Goldie (who had yet to have an actual name bestowed upon him) was dead – laying on the dresser outside the bowl.  Hog, seemingly oblivious to the horrific crime scene mere inches from his abode, was happily swimming laps in the fishbowl.

Perhaps Goldie was a poor fit to the environment.  It may have been so awful that he choose to sacrifice himself to the fish gods rather than spend another moment in there.  It’s possible he tried to make some changes but Hog let him know he needed to conform or get out so he chose to make that fateful leap to freedom.  He may have even been given a nudge from Hog that launched him up-and-out…


When we introduce someone new into a work group, a department or an organization are they forced to choose between creativity and conformity?   And how do we know at what point along that creativity/conformity spectrum we are positioned? 

There are certainly areas to which we must expect employees to conform – non-negotiables like working with integrity or embracing a culture of safety.  But how are we reacting to those new entrants into our environment who are ‘creative’ – who are, perhaps, a bit disruptive?  What happens when the sheer mass of the ‘newbies’ exceeds and overwhelms those who have been in place for a while?  Aren’t these newbies, by their mere presence, now impacting and changing that living organism known as our culture?

Do we welcome these people in?  Or do we push them out?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tim permalink
    March 29, 2012 9:24 pm

    I love the fishbowl story, I mean aside from the tragedy and all.
    When people don’t fit, they leave. And if they don’t fit because they can’t contribute in that bowl. ok. But if the bowl is unfriendly, and doesn’t give them room to contribute, that’s a different story.
    My company just celebrated 140 years. We are like that axe that has been in the family for generations – we’ve replace the head 5 times and the handle 10 times. The challenge you are describing is the balance of diversity of thought with consistency of style. But style is not culture. When you begin to think of culture as a results-orientation instead of a methods-orientation, I think that people start to see the real value in diversity while having something in common – the success of the enterprise. I think (maybe hope) that our corporations are starting to see that.

  2. March 29, 2012 10:38 pm

    Always thought provoking and this is actually a subject that a few collegues and I in Southeast Louisiana have been talking about lately. Thank you for broadening my perspective a little more. I love the story of the fish because I can so relate to this.

  3. J. Deming permalink
    April 6, 2012 3:49 am

    organizational culture
    I am a job candidate and the first impression of a company is its on-line job application form. I complete one yesterday and I thought to myself, “If this company is anything like this on-line process, then I don’t want to work here!”
    The on-line forms were from Ultimate Software Group. It had such things as:
    1) a drop-down list for your major in college, I have a degree with double majors.
    2) a drop-down list for veterans to select which era they were in. The choices were:
    Korea era
    Vietnam era
    Gulf War

    My impression is Ultimate is using OLD software and their people have no desire to maintain it. The designer of this question was not a veteran or a good analyst. A drop-list was not needed since veterans know what war they were in and some of them were in multiple ones. This tells me that Ultimate has no understanding of job candidates.

    • April 6, 2012 8:37 am

      J – I think we can certainly all agree that when the on-line application form/process sucks then we pretty much decide that the company sucks. Now I DO have to point out however (while admitting there are some things about Ultimate that are ‘clunky’) that the ‘content’ of that online application is SOLELY up to the company. They decide what questions are asked and also whether answer boxes be formatted as drop down or text box or radio buttons, etc. So it’s the nice HR lady at said-company who was neither the veteran nor the analyst… 😉

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