Don't stand out, stand together

Richard Conniff

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Tess Vigeland: We're always hearing from the management gurus that the best way to get ahead at work is to just put yourself out there. Employees who assert themselves and are more vocal are the ones who are going to excel. March to a different drummer and the boss will notice you. But commentator Richard Conniff disagrees. He says workers are better off if they stand together than stand out.


Richard Conniff: American culture is built on the myth of rugged individualism. Marching to the beat of a different drummer. Doing our own thing in our own time. Being the lone wolf.

But who are we kidding? Rugged individualism is a recipe for disaster. At Procter & Gamble, a former executive once declared, "If eagles fly alone, they shoot them down."

Biology and common sense encourage us to become like the people around us.We actually have mirror neurons in our brains dedicated to imitation. So two people in a friendly conversation often match each other's body language, down to the waggling of their feet. It feels good -- a way of saying, "I'm with you."

We like a conversational partner more if the other person has subtly mimicked us. Making the same gestures and movements also seems to help people work better together. We find a shared rhythm and gradually coalesce into a team.

The mirror response can also save your neck. Let's say you're standing around with co-workers gripe about your boss, Thimblebrain. Then, you spot Thimblebrain bearing down on you. A look of alarm flashes across your face and leaps to the faces of the people around you, causing the conversation to die away just in time. And all this happens before anybody can say, "It's him."

Sure, conformity can be dangerous. It leads to groupthink. Look at NASA, where engineers have twice given the go-ahead to doomed space shuttles.

But working in groups is human nature. We're just not built to go it alone. The trick is to make the group a safe place for people to say, "Hang on, we need to think this through again."

Henry David Thoreau was undoubtedly right to say that a man should "step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." But biology adds that we almost always find that music in the company of other people.

Vigeland: Richard Conniff is author of the book "The Ape in the Corner Office."

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