Our culture has an infatuation with brilliant rogues. These are the people who are so good at what they do, they consider themselves exempt from the workplace rules that mere mortals have to follow: punctuality, dress code, attending the company picnic. These corporate rebels make great movie characters but not-so-great team members. Their colleagues perceive that sense of entitlement as unfair and, well, irritating. Does that sound like someone in your office? Or maybe it sounds like you? I refer to this professional blind spot as the Don’t Fence Me In syndrome.
One of my clients – a sharp sales executive named Clint – suffered from this blind spot. If Clint were a cowboy, he’d essentially be saying: “I’m happy to compete in your rodeo, and I’ll probably win. But you need to find some new judges, because the current ones are incompetent. And by the way, your arena is way too small. I’ll be participating two miles down the road.” Confidence can be an attractive attribute. But when it morphs into arrogance, it quickly ruins reputations.
At first, companies go along with the rule-breakers like Clint. They weigh the employee’s skill or talent against a few broken rules and decide it’s worth the risk. After all, breaking rules is how Apple got to be Apple. Unfortunately, people with Don't Fence Me In syndrome tend to push far beyond the boundaries. They ignore protocols—adding to others’ workloads—and publicly poke holes in the fabric of culture to which everyone else must conform. They consider it their job to “shake things up.”
Before long, the costs outweigh the benefits. People with Don't Fence Me In syndrome only realize they’re eroding their own reputations when they're handed the pink slip or find themselves running from the managers who are suddenly and inexplicably demanding their cultural compliance.
Ego isn't the only reason behind the Don’t Fence Me In mentality. Clint, for example, had a bad experience with a rigid, overbearing manager and vowed never again to be squashed by an oppressive corporate culture. In his eyes, he was protecting himself—but he was also sabotaging his own career.
If you might suffer from Don’t Fence Me In syndrome, the challenge is finding a way to function within the organization so that you don't extinguish your independent spark or burn your bridges. Think before you speak. If you voice an objection, will you be seen as attacking a non-negotiable rule or process? Are you genuinely striving for innovation or simply asserting your dominance? Can you make accommodations to support your team without sacrificing your beliefs or personal boundaries?
If you’re observant, you can find other top performers in the company who play the game well—adhering to the cultural norms yet still differentiating themselves as innovative leaders. In what situations do they speak up to challenge an assumption? And how do they do it? Watch closely and take notes. With a little effort, corporate cowboys can learn how to balance trailblazing and rule-following within the same rodeo arena.
To learn more about Don’t Fence Me In syndrome and other professional blind spots, please check out my new book: "You – According to Them: Uncovering the Blind Spots That Impact Your Reputation and Your Career". (www.amazon.com)