Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth. ~ JFK
Most of us will answer that question with a vehement “No way!”
We’re all wrong, and we don’t even know it.
Our Brains Dig Conformity
That’s right. Our brains love conformity. On the flipside, our brains dislike behavior or beliefs that differ from others.
Put those two ends of the motivational spectrum together and you have a powerful herd mentality. A mentality that impacts every decision we make – as a business professional and a human.
Our caveman brain (aka reptilian brain) holds our instinctual, deeply programmed responses, the things that are intrinsic to humanity. Experts suggest that the reptilian brain and its unconscious motivators are responsible for more than 95% of our behaviors. Yet we are only beginning to understand the nature of this oh-so-powerful force and it’s impact on our actions and lives.
Our reptilian brain is designed to promote our safety and survival. That’s probably why it creates triggers that motivate us to conform. After all, to a caveman or woman, conformity with the tribe was the baseline for survival.
Here’s how it works today.
Being different triggers an error warning. When we sense a difference in our beliefs or opinions from the rest of the herd – our brain signals an error message, stimulating us to want to conform. In a study at Basel University in Switzerland, subjects were asked to rank the attractiveness of faces as their brains were monitored via MRI. When a subjects’ opinion differed from others, neurons in their brain fired to stimulate them to learn and adapt their behavior – aka their opinion – to conform with the others in the study. The majority of participants did, indeed, change their opinion to match others. When they conformed – centers in their brains triggered that positively reinforced that learning.
Conforming triggers a pleasure response. When we conform with the herd – for example when our beliefs match those of a supposed expert or gooroo – our brains send out a signal that rewards our behaviors with a pleasure stimulus. In a study at the University College of London, researchers monitored subjects as they gave their opinions about a variety of pop songs. When the subjects’ rankings of pop music matched those of experts – reward/pleasure centers of the brain were triggered.
Those two reptilian responses go a long way in determining human behavior. And we never know it’s happening….
Conformity and Business Behavior
The implications on business behavior are monumental, both internally and externally. When we consciously understand and leverage the conforming brain – we can shift from following the conformity instinct to breakout thinking that creates significant and sustainable advantage.
As Business Leaders or Employees the need for conformity explains the status quo we so often see within corporate cultures. Whatever our leaders, bosses or the squeaky wheels believe becomes the corporate point of conformity, and everyone else follows along. Those brave souls who stand up against the conforming behavior are often viewed as rebels, trouble makers or simply uninformed.
Yet some of those who do step out and create a strong new opinion can capture followers because of the conforming brain – whether that new opinion is accurate or not. That’s why strong personalities, or people who are viewed (rightly so or not) as gooroos and visionaries, often capture the passion of their follower and sway our perspectives. In the extreme, such conformity can segregate our business focus, creating multiple groups with conflicting beliefs and behaviors – thus limiting our ability to successfully execute our specified strategy. And we don’t even know it.
Have you ever noticed how a corporate culture tends to have a very few leading opinion creators and a large number of opinion supporters? Welcome to the conforming brain.
As Business Buyers the conforming brain leads us to buy from those vendors, or to buy those products, that highly opinionated others love and reference. Stepping out of the herd to be the first to buy that new product, or to buy from an unknown vendor, means we’re bucking the conformity brain.
So why do some of us do that? In the case of early adopters, the reward systems for stepping out of the pack must be strong enough to support that decision. That usually means we’re in a situation where continuing on the path of the status quo offers a big enough threat of failure that our reptilian brain has shifted into fight or flight mode. We’re literally being triggered to search for a better alternative. When that happens, we’re encouraged to find a new way – and the door is open to step out of conformity and into a search for safety -aka a new approach.
The conforming brain goes a long way in explaining the uptake cycle of new products in the market. Early adopters are either a) in the midst of a threatening situation that is forcing them to find a new solution or b) in a situation where non-conformity is the common opinion in their group. Look at the early adopters of technology and you’ll see the bleeding edge of techies and scientists – where seeking out new solutions is the path to conformity within their peer group. All of the following buyers are simply conforming to the opinions of those who went before them…
As an aside – I now finally understand the herd mentality around fashion. Even if the latest trends are unflattering or worse – we’ll wear them. Why? Our reptile told us to!!!
How Leveraging Conformity can Create Advantage
That discussion could go on for days. The options are endless when you think about it – from employee motivation to strategic focus to wooing buyers and more. For now, I’m simply picking a few obvious points where we can all leverage the conforming brain to our advantage.
1) Stories. The conforming brain explains why stories with positive opinions about your business and your value are so powerful – especially when it comes to engaging with new buyers. When you share these opinions in a non me, me, me way – you can literally trigger the pleasure response of your buyers’ brains. As soon as they agree with the opinions they get rewarded. The caveat here is this. Share the opinions of others and keep your mouth shut about your me, me, me thinking. Let their reptilian brains do the work for you.
When you create and share stories that feature the positive opinions of 3rd parties whom your prospects view as experts, trusted sources etc – you are setting up that reptilian trigger to conform. It’s that simple.
2) Community. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago - the power of community is one of the most underutilized opportunities for our business success. The opportunity to get people talking about our business, our offerings, their solutions and value is unprecedented. We simply need the courage to defy our status quo beliefs about controlling our buyer conversations and step into the digital reality – they are already talking!
Imagine the influence the conforming brain will have within a community – when you facilitate the sharing of opinions you also create the motivation for prospects to conform – and buy.
3) Questioning. Within our businesses – the conforming brain brings potential for both velocity and gravity. Employees and leaders with strong opinions can and will trigger the conforming instinct within your culture.
Assuming everyone is in agreement and these opinions are your agreed to strategic direction – conformity can enhance the velocity of your success. On the flipside, the lure of conformity, combined with the power of the status quo bias (our human inclination to stick with the current situation) creates gravity in our business.
Conformity can be a threat to our success. When we have employees conforming to new opinions that are untested or out of sync with our desired path – we fragment our efforts. Similarly, when we’re all conforming with status quo opinions that were yesterdays news but not today’s truths – we are threatening our sustainable success.
That’s why I suggest to clients that they question, question, question every belief, opinion and behavior. When we question our beliefs with an eye to proving ourselves wrong, we shift our brains out of the conformity mode and into the search for a better way. Once you find that better way – then you can use the power of conformity to realign your organization toward your new strategy, belief, behaviors and more.
The Bottom Line
Studies show that humans will swear, swear and swear again that the opinions of others really don’t sway their decisions.
Now that we know that’s untrue – think how we can use the human instinct to conform to change our markets’ beliefs and behaviors and consequently create our own business advantage.
What other ideas do you have to leverage the conforming brain to your advantage? I’d love to hear from you!!!