A white-haired bearded man dressed in a tie that is happy with individualism in the workplace.

Do you leverage the unique aspects of your employees, or do you expect them to conform to the norm? Do you value degrees over skills?

In The End of Average, Todd Rose says that judging people in comparison to the average does significant damage to society when people abuse averages in the workplace. He asserts that, if employees can use their individual strengths at work, they’ll be more productive and fulfilled.

Keep reading to learn the merits of individualism in the workplace.

Individualism in the Workplace

Rose contends that many commonplace business practices at modern companies around the world follow an outdated model. Instead of seeking uniquely talented individuals, factory managers in the late 19th century sought to maximize efficiency by creating systems that could produce consistent results using workers of “average” skill. They created standardized assembly line-style processes that the average worker could execute consistently without any unique skills. Then, factory managers declared these processes to be the model of perfect efficiency and prohibited workers from deviating in any way.

Because many modern organizations follow this same factory model, we have a system that treats workers more like robots than people. Companies expect their employees to follow instructions to the letter, resisting or punishing them if they try to devise their own ways to solve problems. Rose asserts that this is a lose-lose situation: Workers feel dehumanized and unfulfilled, and businesses miss out on the profit potential of their employees’ creative ideas and unique strengths as individuals.

Rose argues that the solution to these issues is to restore individualism in the workplace. When workers have the opportunity to productively utilize their unique skills, they feel more fulfilled and achieve better results than if they just follow instructions.

Today, We Need Unique Workers Even More

In Linchpin, Seth Godin also traces today’s average-obsessed business practices back to industrial-era assembly lines. He agrees with Rose that the rise of jobs where workers must strictly follow directions has made work less fulfilling for employees and less profitable for employers. Furthermore, he contends that developments in the 21st century have exacerbated these problems.

Ideally, people want to avoid unfulfilling jobs, but many workers are willing to do boring labor to cover their basic needs. However, in the 21st century, these unfulfilling jobs offer far less security than they used to. Because so many corporations have developed low-skill jobs that ask employees to follow directions, the supply of passable workers now far outpaces demand. This has made workers much more interchangeable, enabling companies to offer lower wages and making it easier for them to fire and replace anyone they want.

From an employer’s perspective, it’s nearly impossible for most companies to turn a significant profit with assembly-line business practices. Godin explains that companies that use interchangeable employees do so in an attempt to boost efficiency as much as possible. However, at this point, most companies can’t succeed solely through efficiency. No matter how efficient a company’s processes are, they probably can’t offer cheaper or faster products or services than decades-old massive conglomerates. The only way to survive in competition with such corporations is to offer something that no one else is. This requires new, innovative ideas that are impossible to get by hiring people to follow instructions.

Like Rose, Godin believes that the solution to these problems is for employees to be their authentic individual selves at work, deliberately refusing to work in a dehumanizing way. Doing so empowers employees to build genuine emotional relationships at work—with customers, coworkers, and anyone else around. Such relationships are one way that employees can provide unique value to their organizations, ensuring that they can’t be easily replaced.

Rose offers two main tips for employers who want to increase individuality in the workplace.

Tip #1: Give Employees More Autonomy

First, Rose recommends that employers give workers more control over the ways they spend their time. Instead of forcing employees to rigidly follow directions, managers should allow them to accomplish the organization’s goals the best way they can. By encouraging workers to find their own creative solutions, managers can leverage their team’s unique strengths to constantly improve the business.

For example, imagine you run a restaurant and hire someone to wait tables. One day, they tell you that customers frequently complain about the confusing menu layout. They reveal that they used to be a freelance graphic designer, and they ask if you’d be willing to pay them to design a new menu. Whereas most organizations wouldn’t even consider this offer, Rose might recommend asking for samples of their work, paying them to create a new menu, and giving them more graphic design work if they succeed.

Autonomy Leads to Evolving Responsibilities

As the restaurant example above shows, giving employees more autonomy at work may lead them to entirely different job positions than what they were originally hired for. Rose argues that this is a good thing—ideally, organizations give their workers flexible career paths. This way, employees can develop and utilize all their unique strengths rather than trying to fit into standardized positions or paths designed for a generic “average” worker.

When managers give employees more control over their work and allow their job responsibilities to evolve, these managers show that they respect their workers as unique individuals rather than seeing them as machines. Rose contends that in turn, employees will repay them with more passionate work and loyalty to the company. This is profitable for the company—passionate employees are more productive, and loyal employees will stick with the organization in the long term, reducing the expense of employee turnover.

Tip #2: Hire Individuals, Not Diplomas

We’ve established that employees with the opportunity to use their unique skills at work are more fulfilled and productive. However, according to Rose, current hiring practices often prevent workers from getting jobs that they’d be well suited for. A potential hire may have all the skills for a job, but if they don’t have a prestigious enough degree in a particular field, employers are likely to reject them. 

To ensure that every position is filled by the best possible employee, employers should hire their workers for their skills rather than their educational history. Rose argues that diplomas indicate nothing more than that someone has taken a set of required courses. Diplomas don’t correspond to a specific set of skills, so employers can’t use them to accurately judge whether a potential hire is capable of doing a given job.

Rather than judging potential hires by what diplomas they have, Rose advises companies to judge them based on work they’ve done in the past, which is a more accurate indicator of their skills. In particular, companies should consider applicants who have experience working in an environment similar to theirs, even if it’s outside of their industry. Such applicants are likely to have the skills to do the job well.

For example, if you’re hiring a manager for a software company, a former executive assistant may be a good fit even if they don’t have the same experience in tech as most of your workers. If their past work coordinating schedules is similar enough to the organizational tasks you’re hiring them for, they’re likely to do good work.

Credentials Help Employers Hire Individuals

On a broader scale, Rose argues that the best way we can ensure that more workers end up in jobs that fit them as individuals is by shifting from a diploma-centered labor market to a credential-centered one.

Credentials are alternative educational certificates that represent an individual’s skills more accurately than diplomas. You can earn a credential by passing a single course in a narrow domain, such as accounting or fluency in Spanish. A student’s collection of credentials would accurately indicate all the specific skills they’ve been trained in.

Rose contends that if credentials were more commonly accepted, employers could perfectly identify which candidates would be good fits for the jobs they need to fill. Additionally, credentials would allow workers seeking education to focus on learning the skills they need for the specific job they want to do. In other words, they’d receive a highly individualized education perfectly aligned with their unique goals.

Exercise: Use Your Individuality in the Workplace

Consider your unique strengths and imagine how you could use them to make a difference in the workplace.

  1. In what ways are you different from the other employees at your workplace? Recount your personal history and explain how it makes you unique. (For example, perhaps you were born in Columbia, making you the only member of your team at work who speaks fluent Spanish.)
  2. Based on your personal history, brainstorm unique ways you could serve your organization—things that none of your other coworkers could do. (For example, if you’re the only Spanish speaker working at the city library, you could organize book events for the local Spanish-speaking community.)
  3. What rules or expectations are preventing you from utilizing your unique strengths in your current position? (For example, maybe a single events coordinator is in charge of all the library’s events, and none of your other coworkers have ever even proposed an event.)
  4. Pretend you’re writing an email to your boss. Explain how you could benefit the business by leveraging your unique skills, and make a case for why they should allow you to do so. (For example, you might argue that a large segment of locals only speaks Spanish, and hosting events specifically for them is necessary to fully engage with the community.)
Fostering Individualism in the Workplace: 2 Musts for Managers

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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