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Thought leadership: Why do we choose conformity if we say we want to stand out?

On the last episode of Liz Has Lots of Opinions, I pointed out how so many of us (marketers, brand storytellers, business executives, experts, lion tamers, etc.) are shouting from the rooftops that we want to be thought/industry leaders who push the envelope, galvanize others to take action … or at least drive some revenue with the content we create, on behalf of ourselves or our companies.

But when we have to sit down and actually, you know, do the thing – craft that blog article, write that website copy, compose that presentation – we pull our punches. We choose safety and conformity, often knowingly.

We do this because we’re afraid of rejection. Whose rejection? Well, that depends on who you are. It could be your boss, your ideal buyers (or some segment thereof), your competitors, some big audience of strangers you’ve never met, or your neighbor.

Maybe it’s a baby in a stroller you caught staring at you one time at a fro-yo shop. And even though they couldn’t sit up on their own yet … you just knew they were judging you.

This fear of rejection, as I talked about previously, has created an unfortunate outcome for so many of us:

“As a result of this toxic, fear-based thinking, we become trapped in a loop:

1. Declare we want to be bold and visionary, with messaging and big ideas that cut through all the bullshit.

2. Create or publish homogenous nonsense that sounds exactly like everyone else we’re trying to compete with.

3. Unknowingly collapse into the warm, cancerous embrace of forgettable mediocrity.

Lather, rinse, repeat.” (Read the full article.)

Then I launched into a spirited virtual pep talk about how fear and pain and eating terrifying amounts of Häagen-Dazs to avoid confronting your feelings are all “part of the process.”

Growth hurts, right? And there are thousands of books and articles and aesthetically-pleasing Instagram posts out there proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that you need to lean into the spooky-scaries of standing out and being different if you want to … well, do whatever it is that you’re trying to do.

Or, more to the point, “Suck it up, snowflakes. Stop crying into your boxed wine, and start using your outside voice for your inside thoughts! It’s not that hard!”

But since I published that piece, I haven’t felt great about it

At first, I wasn’t sure why. Then, as I was sitting at this very keyboard about three weeks ago, I found myself completely crippled by the exact same fear I had just written about. I had a fantastic topic all picked out, and had all my research organized and gathered at my side.

And I still panicked.

“Why should anyone listen to me?”

“Everyone is just going to think I’m a fraud.”

“Am I even qualified to be saying any of this?”

To top it all off, the fact that I couldn’t slide into my big girl pants and take my own advice to put myself out there with reckless abandon – again, the way I had just written about – made me feel like a giant hypocrite, in addition to being an unoriginal hack with nothing valuable to share.

👉 Related: Keeping your promises as a company (and a leader) should be hard

After about two hours of being a drama queen, as well as writing and rewriting the same four intro paragraphs of totally unusable nonsense, I gave up. But the next morning, as I swore quietly into a cup of disgusting, cheap hotel coffee, the reason why my first article didn’t sit right with me finally hit me.

Just acknowledging the fact that fear is the primary detractor for those of us who desire to “break through the noise” with something different and bold (or at least totally honest) isn’t really enough.

The real question we should be asking is why are so many of us so very afraid?

This question began to plague me because this “fear epidemic” is not something being experienced by a select few or small pockets of our population.

Over the past 10 years, on top of being a content creator myself (with my own dreams of making a real difference in the lives of others), I’ve spent thousands of hours coaching and interviewing scores of different experts, frontline employees, business leaders, executives, marketers and would-be writers (across a wide range of industries) on creating content for themselves or their companies.

In addition, I specialize in helping companies solve their own brand identity crises, as well as helping individuals and companies develop their voice and tone. I’ve also started speaking at conferences over the past four years on those topics, which has opened up its own endlessly fascinating waterfall of connections and conversations.

Through these experiences, here’s what I’ve observed:

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a seasoned C-level executive with decades of experience in the SaaS technology space or a visionary entrepreneur trying to find their voice (and potentially write a book one day); fear is almost always at the heart of any big problem or question someone has presented to me about breaking through with their messaging, finding their voice or understanding how to stand out from their competitors.

Not every single time, of course.

(Some of you out there could give me lessons on breaking through my own fear barriers.)

But it’s a staggeringly significant percentage. Which, again, begs the question of why is this fear of rejection such a widespread issue, even among top-tier professionals and experts who, from the outside-in, seemingly have nothing to worry about?

The answer is complicated, but IT begins with human nature

When we think about why we develop fears about anything, we generally link their origin stories to something that happened in our past.

For example, I spent years being afraid of dogs, because I was toppled to the ground by a well-meaning golden retriever when I was 3 years old. (I didn’t get over this fear until I was about 15.) Also, to this day, I remain deathly afraid of leaving any wedge of brie cheese uneaten because I was not hugged enough by other brie cheese wedges in my family when I was a child.

We all have our own vicious, fear-based cycles we play out over and over again throughout our lives, and many of them are deeply (and understandably) rooted in some sort of situational trauma. But in terms of our collective fear of rejection, as a species, our internalized traumas wreaking havoc in present day is only part of the story.

We are programmed, as humans, at an instinctual level to conform, to seek acceptance and belonging.

To quote James Clear’s Atomic Habits (a book I cannot recommend enough):

“Humans are herd animals. We want to fit in, to bond with others, and to earn the respect and approval of our peers. Such inclinations are essential to our survival. For most of our evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in tribes. Becoming separated from the tribe – or worse, being cast out – was a death sentence …

Meanwhile, those who collaborated and bonded with others enjoyed increased safety, mating opportunities, and access to resources … As a result, one of the deepest human desires is to belong. And this ancient preference exerts a powerful influence on our modern behavior.”

Just how influential is this pull to conform on our “modern behavior”? Well, Clear’s book led me down a rabbit hole by introducing me to a fascinating study that explores that very question …

“How strong is the urge toward social conformity?”

In a 1955 issue of Scientific American, Solomon E. Asch published experimental research that would profoundly influence the social psychology conversations we have regarding group pressure toward more normative (conformist) opinions and behaviors. Or, more specifically, bringing into focus the question of “what is the effect of the opinions of others on our own?”

Asch and his colleagues carried out a series of experiments to answer that question.

Here is how those experiments would work.

A male college student would enter a room. He would sit down at a table, along with six to eight other participants, thinking they were all taking part in a psychological experiment testing perception. Little did this unsuspecting man know, he was actually the focus of the experiment.

Dun dun dun.

The entire group was then shown two cards that looked something like this:

They were told to choose the line from the second card that matched the first. Simple enough, right?

Well, to the actual subject of the experiment, that’s how everything initially seemed, because everyone in the room would make the correct selection in the first round. For example, everyone in the room would have chosen II, if they were looking at the above set of cards.

After the first round, however, things start to go horribly wrong for our subject

That’s because the rest of the group has been coached to choose INCORRECTLY in all subsequent rounds with confidence, with no hint that they are knowingly choosing the wrong line. So, instead of choosing II, they would have chosen III or I.

How did the real subject react, the one who knew what the genuinely correct answer was?

Well, obviously, he was confused.

He began the activity with a group of people he believed to be in the same situation he was. Now, after a round of full consensus, every single person except for him is making the complete opposite choice of what he knows is right, and he doesn’t understand why.

Now what?

Asch ran this series of experiments with 123 subjects at three different universities, introducing a number of different variables, and here is what happened:

  • Only approximately 25% of the subjects never caved to the group, meaning about 75% of subjects chose to go with the group consensus, even when they knew it to be incorrect, if they were the lone dissenter.

  • If there was the presence of just one other person making the correct choice, the pair together (including the actual subject) would make fewer errors in the presence of a majority choosing the incorrect option with confidence.

  • All subjects, when asked to estimate how many times they conformed to the group normative answers, underestimated how many times they voted with the group instead of with the right answer.

Asch also spoke to participants afterward to find out why they made the choices they did. Here is what some of them told him:

  • Those who were “extremely yielding” decided they must be wrong and the others were right, so they opted to go with the group.

  • Others also said, “I didn’t want to spoil your results” by being the odd one out with the stray answer.

  • There were even those who admitted they knew the others were wrong (potentially victims of an optical illusion), but that still didn’t stop them from conforming.

  • The most “disquieting” reactions, Asch noted, were those who said their difference of opinion from the majority pointed to a “deficiency in themselves, which at all costs they must hide. On this basis they desperately tried to merge with the majority, not realizing the longer-range consequences to themselves.”

Asch’s wild findings prompted others to do even more mind-blowing research on conformity

A couple of fellows named Morton Deustch and Harold Gerard decided to take Asch’s experiments a step further, because they believed them to be flawed in methodology – they believed subjects were encouraged by circumstance (a group setting) to chase a normative goal (“conform with positive expectations of another”) rather than an informational goal (accuracy).

So, they conducted variations of the Asch experiments – anonymous, face-to-face, self-commitment, public commitment, etc.

What did they find?

“Surprisingly given this, Deutsch and Gerard found that some subjects would still choose the clearly incorrect answer even when they made their decision in the absence of confederates. They took this to mean that the confederates were also exerting some informational influence and that the subjects may really have believed the group decisions. An alternative explanation is that, even when apparently isolated, individuals may find normative tendencies hard to resist.” (Source)

Beyond the social psychology of it all, it’s worth noting that humans aren’t the only ones who express conformist tendencies. Those studying the cultural evolutionary pathways toward conformity have also found that other species (monkeys, rats and even fish) exhibit similar behaviors of going with the group.

Still, it’s worth noting that a “single framework” relating to conformity has yet to emerge from the realms of social psychology and cultural evolutionary studies.

But patterns of our biological preference to conform are there

In the presence of a large majority of people who all hold a singular opinion or stance contrary to our own, we are more likely to go along with the group. And, in extreme cases, we will either knowingly be making an incorrect choice to avoid being the outcast, or we will internalize our own dissent as a flaw within ourselves.

And what I’ve presented to you so far is only the tip of the iceberg, in terms of what science has to tell us about why our actions will (in many cases) run counter to our stated desire to stand out, as well as how we prefer to only take actions that are “validated” by others:

  • There’s the social impact theory, which posits that social influence is an undeniable, measurable force – its power on par with universal laws like magnetism and gravity.

  • Just last year, a significant conversation sparked in the scientific community about the real meaning of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest,” and the fact that some now believe “fittest” actually means “friendliest” or the ability for someone to fit in.

  • Instances where you recognize you receiving social support from a peer group releases a “feel good” chemical called oxytocin. On the other hand, when we experience rejection, the same part of our brain that activates in response to physical pain lights up.

  • We all know social proof is a helluva drug. For instance, in an experiment, a restaurant added a small label of “most popular” to select menu items to see what would happen. Almost immediately, sales for those items specifically jumped up to 20%. (Source)

  • There’s also some fascinating data around the fact that highly charismatic leaders can seem less effective to their peers and subordinates.

That means, for a large number of you reading this who want to stand out and be known for being different and bold and visionary, chasing that goal will automatically create negative feelings, depending on the space you find yourself in – anxiety, confusion, the deep-rooted desire to not be the one who pees in everyone’s fun cereal.

You need to know, however, that those feelings are not a signal to you that you are actually wrong. They are present because of one simple fact – you’re a human who is programmed at a caveman level to avoid rejection and being banished from the herd due to fringe beliefs or actions.

Unless that fringe belief is to, like, kick puppies. That’s not cool.

I spent most of my life trying to be someone I’m not

With decades of practice behind me, for many years, I was basically the Picasso of camouflaging the terrifying amount of crippling self-hatred that’s housed within me.

I did so with self-deprecating humor, seemingly “off-the-cuff” anecdotes and jokes (that were, in reality, mercilessly focus-grouped for months before being brought out into the general public), and obscure pop culture references that were cherry-picked to endear me to whatever group I happened to find myself in.

This is something I actively avoid talking about or explicitly pointing out, because it’s exceedingly painful and (according to the asshole voices in my head) is a sign of some deep flaw in my character.

But the reality is my upbringing violently ingrained a people-pleasing habit in me, born out of self-preservation. My parents divorced when I was about two years old, and I was raised by a mother who was, on the one hand, brilliant, beautiful and endlessly charismatic. On the other hand, she was also a physically and verbally abusive alcoholic whose efforts to manage her bipolar diagnosis medically were perpetually undermined by her addiction.

After an incident when I was 13 years old, I was removed from her care by the police and placed with my dad.

Then, for more than 20 years (and still, to some degree, to this day), I struggled to express a thought or seek out an experience that wasn’t rooted in an overt effort to seek approval and acceptance. My identity was fluid, easily shaped by those I chose to emulate for … whatever threadbare reason I happened to be clinging to at the time.

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So, as a teenager, I was broken and miserable. I lashed out, dabbling heavily in self-destructive behaviors (although, thankfully, not substances) and isolating myself as a misunderstood victim. To the surprise of no one, I was often rightfully pegged as a hopeless cause and a picture-perfect example of lost potential.

I moved out when I was 19 years old, after a year and a half at Boston University where I spent most of my time feeling aimless, depressed and unable to get out of bed. My 20s were a bit better, although that period of my life was defined by me trying on different identities and discarding them like outfits, which made me bearable to most people for a very limited amount of time.

As I look toward 40, I can say I’ve finally started to move beyond those tendencies and connect with who I really am and what my voice sounds like. Truth be told, I can see now that I turned to writing (even though I was terrible at it in school) because it was the one place where I could freely express myself without interruption, judgment or punishment. And this is likely the genesis of why this is the passion and career I have chosen.

I made the choice to share this with you not to garner sympathy, but to make a larger point.

Earlier, I brushed off situational traumas and systemic circumstances to make way for a conversation about the biological and psychological origins of our love of conformity. But those reasons are just the base of the fear cupcake.

Our personal experiences are like the poopy diaper-flavored icing that sits on top.

So, Yes … We conform for big reasons beyond instinct, too

Statistically, I am thankful that a lot of you cannot relate to the story I just shared. (To those who do, my heart is with you.) That being said, I’m willing to wager that virtually all of you can point to instances or patterns or systems that have touched your lives where you were taught (explicitly or otherwise):

  • It’s easier and safer and more advantageous to agree.

  • Your opinion isn’t what matters right now.

  • You need to keep your thoughts to yourself.

  • To get ahead, you need to get in line.

  • Your dissent will certainly be met with swift retribution.

  • Your survival depends on your ability to make others happy.

From a purely business perspective, there’s also the fact that you need to accept that there’s a risk you take in doing something different that goes against the grain. Rejection of you being different by the market won’t just mean you feel shitty as a human, it may also cost you real money. Lots of it. Catastrophic amounts of it, even.

Yes, there’s the nature side of it. Where we’re all cavemen who just want to be loved and accepted so we don’t get cast out of the tribe, left to be eaten by the dinosaurs. But there are also very real traumas and systems and risks we experience that can rise in direct opposition to our desire to be different.

That’s why one of the things I always tell the brilliant people I coach is this:

You are not entering a business of being “universally beloved.” If you choose this path of visionary, thought leader or pioneer, you need to get comfortable with not everyone liking you or agreeing with you, because it’s part of the package deal.

If you choose to use your voice, you will attract critics

That sounds terrible, right?

Well, it’s not. This is exactly how it’s supposed to be. Your goal in using your voice and standing out and saying something different (as an individual or as a company) is not to attract everyone, it’s to attract the right people. Your people.

The road to mediocrity is paved with the dreams of individuals and organizations who believed their guaranteed path toward “cutting edge” thought leadership would be built on mass appeal and being likable. Because when you pursue the more painless, oxytocin-inducing strategy of broad acceptance and not pissing anyone off, you do become likable, sure.

But you also sound like everyone else. You become forgettable white noise.

When you use your voice without padding or fear, you’re going to attract detractors more easily. You’re going to make people feel things they may not want to feel. You’re going to call people out on their bullshit, and those people aren’t always going to say, “Wow, they are so right, I am wrong about everything.” Some of them may project their insecurities or lack of self-awareness onto you.

The upside, of course, is the right people will hear you.

The right people will finally feel seen or heard or understood.

And they’ll tell you that, too.

That’s why the first step toward being an individual or entity that truly stands out from the crowd is understanding why it hurts so damn much in the first place.

Yes, fear is part of the equation, but it’s a symptom, not the real root cause.

Our fears are a direct reaction to the deck of both nature and nurture cards that are stacked pretty high against us. We’re programmed to conform as a means to survive.

👉 Related: To find your voice, you must first confront your demons

You can overcome it, though. You can learn to interpret criticism and rejection as signals that you’re on the right path, rather than signs that you must retreat. You’re making people feel something. You’re sparking dialogue and conversation. Heck, those conversations may even open you up to new opportunities and pathways of learning, of growth.

None of us are right 100% of the time.

I know it’s scary, and those first critics that come along will make you doubt everything. You’ll have to remind yourself that you are not in the wrong for people having a negative reaction. But the moment the right people also start raising their hands … those oxytocin hits our neanderthal brains crave so much won’t be far behind.