Non – conformity – embracing a challenger culture


This is dedicated to my L.I.F.E (Leaders Inspired From Experience) cohort, as we come together to create the reality we dream of. This is for the crazy ones.

Human evolution is filled with examples of non-conformist movements beginning the 1950s such as the beatniks, hippies, demonstrations against nuclear warfare, globalisation and pollution to name but a few.

By definition, conformity is behaviour that is the same as the behaviour of most other people in a society or group. In psychology conformity is a type of social influence involving a change in belief or behavior in order to fit in with a group. This change is in response to a real or imagined group pressure.

Psychologists generally identify 3 ways of conformity, normative involving compliance (to fit in); informational (desire to be correct) and identification (conform to a social role). Further research on the subject of conformity was conducted and it was determined that the level of non-conformity differs among cultures. In Western cultures which are more inclined toward individualism, the individual is more important than the group so non-conformity is greater. Whilst Eastern cultures value collectivism where the group is more important than the individual, they show a higher leaning towards conformity.

Author and brand-building expert Denise Lee Yohn in her book ‘What Great Brands Do’ lists the following as what these challenger brands do;

  • Great Brands Start Inside, great brands start brand building by fostering a strong internal corporate culture.
  • Great brands are not in the business of following, they are challengers – they are in the business of leading – leading change, developing their own ideas, advancing their own platforms and values, and they invite other people to join along with them.

Too much conformity can be a bad thing. John F. Kennedy said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” I have been in environments where everyone is expected to think the same and behave the same. Where differing thoughts are a “no-no” if you want to be happy in that space let alone keep your job.

I have always found it difficult to exist in such environments and as a coping mechanism I tended to draw closer to myself as a form of self-preservation.  Holding back your individuality and your own mind can lead to your extinction as a person. In these situations one is no longer themself.

As to whether there can be a balance between individuality and conformity, it could be considered that one should rather make a concentrated effort to find that balance.

There is wisdom in the ‘no”. In any team there will always be the instigator, that one person who doesn’t ever agree. It’s easy to stereotype them but; it’s wiser to hear them out. There is always wisdom in the “no”.

Organisations which have been successful in cultivating healthy challenger cultures are Apple, and Google (and others like them) who went against the norms and created phenomenal workplaces for employees who in turn became comfortable to challenge the status quo.

In an HBR article, by James R. Detert and Amy C. Edmondson, on why employees are afraid to bring ideas to their bosses. The authors interviewed 200 individuals from all levels and functions of a company. Half of the employee respondents in a culture survey had revealed that they felt it was not “safe to speak up” or challenge traditional ways of doing things. What they were most reticent to talk about were not problems but rather creative ideas for improving products, processes, or performance.

Detert and Edmondson found that the innate protective instinct of self-preservation was so powerful that it also inhibited speech that clearly would have been intended to help the organization. During their interviews, the perceived risks of speaking up felt very personal and immediate to those employees and the possible future benefit to the organization from sharing their ideas was uncertain, so people often instinctively played it safe by keeping quiet.

It appears to me that organisations with challenger, non-conformist cultures also use technology to innovate and enable their people.  This is seen in predominantly IT companies (Microsoft, Google, Apple and the likes). There is much to be said for this holy trinity of people, culture and technology and the creation of great organisations.

In closing, people who search for their internal compass are told to find that one thing that unleashes their inner awesomeness. I believe that it’s when companies believe they are doing great work that its employees in turn believe they are doing great work and thus unleashing their inner awesomeness in this ecosystem.



To read more about this experiment:


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