Conformity in nature and human nature. Survival is at our core. Are we afraid to be different? Where has Darwin taken us?
Understanding the notion of conformity is important when we talk about culture, inside organizations and out. It’s become a key driver in our thinking. As we’ve discussed, our mindset is subtly but deeply influenced by our own vauge perceptions of things are supposed to be, consumed by a feeling that our survival may depend on our ability to fit in.
Can we actually be paralyzed by conformity?
To Margaret Wheatley, there’s no beating around the bush. She says we are. Consider these excerpts from A Simpler Way (1999):
“We have terrorized ourselves by the thought of evolution, driving ourselves into positions of paralyzing conformity, for fear of getting things wrong .. (where) extinction will follow swiftly on the heels of any mistake.”
“.. fear is the darkest of Darwinian shadows.”
Wheatley likes to cut to the chase.
Can we find examples to support her claim? I think they are plentiful, and they are all around us. Consider:
- a consumer culture that thrives on conformist based purchasing (think: brands, trends, styles)
- social circles that favor (or outright demand) fitting in
- work environments that favor the status quo, resisting alternative viewpoints
- education systems increasingly riveted to standards
- organizations that cling to structure/hierarchy over more dynamic/collaborative modes of interaction
- a Western busiess culture modeled upon repeatable, uniform, mechanistic models of efficiency
Much has been written (by me and others; see also a book by C.Christensen, and a great RSA animation by K.Robinson), on the downside of our mechanistic, structure-focused paradigms. It’s thinking that makes us slaves to someone else’s blueprint. Our culture and our thought processes seem literally consumed by the conformist view.
Can we break the cycle?
I say yes. If we can find ways to fundamentally change our mindset.
I’m intrigued that in the very same book, Wheatley goes on to describe patterns and rules in nature that seek to discover what works. Conformity, perhaps, is not all bad, like a tree seeking a greater share of critical sunlight, or vying to expand its rainfall catching potential. Have a need for more light and water? Grow a little taller. Sprout some more leaves.
A better, more useful frame might be: conform if it’s working, adapt if it’s not.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to a balancing act. So often, we don’t see a choice. Conformity of purpose is important where precision, quality and scale are required. But when we limit our exploration of new ideas or way of doing things, we cut off our chance to learn, to innovate, and to grow.
Conformity can be a trap. And it can also be our saving grace when we frame it as a repeatable pattern, a platform for new possibilities.
The #cdna community hosts a periodic exploration of social learning, a deep dive into the factors that help us learn together. We seek to identify enablers that help us discover, and the barriers that tend to keep us from learning. At our next discussion, let’s tee up these questions on conformity in the context of culture:
- Q1. What reactions or thoughts does mention of comformity tend to trigger?
- Q2. Can we advance metaphors for conformity that focus on upside (tree leaves) and caution of the downside (factory model)?
- Q3. If you agree with Wheatley on the dark side of Darwin, why does conformist thinking carry a special risk?
- Q4. Can we influence the cultural implications that conformity introduces? How?
I can help on that last one with a hint: if you’re a Peter Block fan, you’ll know the answer to “How?” is almost always “Yes!” Our next #cdna chat is slated for Monday March 10th at 8pm ET.
Bring your ideas and an open mind. We hope to see you there.
Chris Jones (aka @sourcepov)