Idiosyncracy Credits: The Currency to Stand Out from the Group?

I sunburn easily. So when I forgot to bring sun protection for an all-day outdoor program I was leading in hot sun last year, I asked if anyone I was working with had an extra hat I could borrow. They did, and I had two choices – a wooly winter hat or a large straw hat with fake plastic flowers, floral print, and pink ribbons hanging down. Not my usual choice of hat, but when the group I was leading saw that I chose it, they giggled a little, and loosened up; it had just become a safe space to do something different. Throughout the day, the participants now had more permission to step outside of their own comfort zone and not worry about looking foolish. By setting aside my own fear of image (also known as “Fimage“), those I was responsible for were able to do the same, and take risks like taking challenging steps on a high ropes course.

Of course, the hat by itself wouldn’t have been enough to get them there – it was important that I also demonstrated I was a competent facilitator. In this case, both my skills and the flowery hat are examples of “Idiosyncracy Credit” – a social psychology term originally coined by Edwin Hollander in a 1958 edition of Psychological Review. Hollander suggested that it was possible to earn idiosyncracy credits by demonstrating competency or conformity. You then have credit to “spend” when the time comes to go against the grain and challenge the status quo – or encourage others to take steps they might not otherwise take. This initial description might be a product of its time, when conformity to the cultural norms was one of the highest values. Over the decades other psychologists have tweaked this description to suggest that while compentency is key, conformity is less important; idiosyncracy credits can equally be earned – and passed on to others – with acts of silliness, or good-willed quirky behavior; a willingness to take risks and not look like the perceived cultural norm.

This might simply come in the form of being authentic. Think of Pride celebrations, or other cultural celebrations, and the expressions of those cultures that are shown in clothes, banners, flags, make-up, and actions. These events value not just the culture being celebrated – they also (perhaps subconsciously) share their idiosyncacy credits with others to allow everyone to be free to express themselves in their own unique way too. In doing so, this actually stretches the idea of what the cultural norm is, expanding it beyond the horizon of conformity, into a culture that values and celebrates unique diversity. It also lays the groundwork for each individual – yourself included – being able to disagree with a group without judgement or reprisal.

How might this idea of “Idiosyncracy Credits” be useful to you and your team this week?

This Week’s Tip:

Take stock of your Idiosyncracy Credits. Reflect on the relationships you have with team members, your manager, and others you work with. Ask yourself:

  • Is it time to earn some Idiosyncracy Credits? Would you feel safe taking risks in front of this group? Do you feel trusted, and supported? If not, perhaps it’s time to earn some credits – you might do this by demonstrating your competency more visibly (Go public with your work! Try being transulcent instead of opaque!) and/or take small steps to express yourself outisde of the cultural norms (Share about a personal hobby or passion, wear a pin or shirt that shows something you care about).
  • Is it time to spend some Idiosyncracy Credits? You feel safe taking risks and feel supported by those around you – now what? Are there organizational issues you’d like to challenge? Things that feel challenging that you want to address? The “spend” of Idiosyncracy Credits relates to the size of the challenge – if it’s a major challenge, you might want to talk it through with a trusted colleague or friend and get a second opinion on your credit balance. If you have the credits, ask yourself if there are other challenges you want to address too, and pick your battles – and/or keep earning credits along the way!

Try this out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you. As always, you can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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