Leaders, Here’s How to Beat the Conformity Compulsion

By: Michael McQueen

Despite our protestations otherwise, we all have a conformity compulsion. If we sense that the herd is going in a particular direction, we instinctively fear being left behind or stranded.

Part of this is likely a hangover from our tribal past as humans.

The compulsion to mimic and copy others is deeply rooted in our need to belong. By complying with social norms and collectivist views, we gain the acceptance of the tribe. Breaking social norms or dissenting is dangerous as it can see us expelled from the group. Or at the very least, shamed and embarrassed.[1]

While we may think we want to be stand out, this constant pursuit of conformity suggests otherwise. Our impulse to fit in with the group is so strong that it consistently leads us to think, say and do things that go against what we know to be true or right. This human habit often plays out most clearly in circumstances involving a moral dilemma.

In 1982, an article in The Atlantic magazine by political scientist James Wilson and criminologist George Kelling titled “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety” sparked a shift in the way law enforcement and city authorities thought about fighting crime.

Wilson and Kelling’s premise was this: insignificant symbols of disorder and decay such as smashed windows, litter or graffiti send a signal that others don’t value the community and therefore breaking the law was no big deal – even if the crimes were far from petty. Kelling’s background in criminology had convinced him that disordered surroundings powerfully communicates an unspoken message that fosters antisocial behaviour. “A broken window left in disrepair,” Kelling explained, “suggests that no one is in charge and no one cares.” As a result, seemingly insignificant or petty crimes had a direct influence on rates of more serious and violent crimes.[2]

Many city officials in the 1990s took this to heart and adopted zero tolerance approaches to petty crimes such as drinking in public, graffiti, and vandalism. The results were extraordinary – most notably and famously in New York where the initiative was credited with reducing felonies by as much as 75%.[3]

Black and white photo of a large crowd
Photo by Rob Curran on Unsplash

There was some debate as to whether the ‘broken windows’ theory really was responsible for a social pressure-induced drop in crime or whether this was merely an example of confusing correlation with causation.

In an effort to prove or disprove Wilson and Kelling’s theory, a group of researchers in the Netherlands set out to examine whether public signs of lawlessness really did influence people’s behaviour. In one study, the researchers placed a five-Euro note in an envelope hanging halfway out of a mailbox. The envelope’s clear window meant its monetary contents were obvious to any passer-by.

Hidden nearby to observe the behaviour of passers-by, the researchers kept a tally of how many individuals stole the envelope. When there were no visible signs of disorder or ‘lawlessness’, just 13 percent of people succumbed to temptation and stole the envelope. However, when the mailbox was graffitied or litter was placed on the ground nearby, the percentage of people who stole the envelope doubled. According to the researchers, it was this visible evidence that created a perception that law breaking was the social norm and so individuals complied with what it seemed ‘everyone else was doing.’[4]

More recent research in Lowell, Massachusetts, has further validated Wilson and Kelling’s assertion that social pressure is not just active but passive – a removal of pressure to behave in positive ways influences us to follow suit.[5]

“Our inherent conformity compulsion means we are unlikely to go against what we perceive to be the norm…”

Regardless of whether they bring out the best or the worst in us, it’s hard to look past the power of social norms and their influence on individuals in a group. Much of the famed work of social psychologist Kurt Lewin was dedicated to examining the role of these norms. But it is more than simple behaviour conformity. British social psychologist John Turner developed Self Categorisation Theory to explain how individuals blend their values, beliefs and identity with those of their group and that both the group and individual’s values get increasingly reinforced and entwined over time.[6]

In many cases, the outcome of this is that in order to persuade an individual to change their beliefs or behaviour, you must change the behaviour of their entire group. Our inherent conformity compulsion means that we are unlikely to go against what we perceive to be the norm or value established in our group.

One of the fathers of applied psychology Kurt Lewin points to this in his famous Change Theory. As Lewin suggests, the biggest fact that inhibits an individual changing is the influence of group standards. The compulsion to not go against consensus, lest we be ousted from the group, is incredibly strong. In order to change an individual, group standards themselves need to change.[7]

For those in pursuit of change, this can sound like an impossible task. Shifting the norms and conventions of an established group borders on impossible for the individual. However, what was highlighted by the results of the Broken Windows theory was that people only need evidence that the herd is moving, and they will move too. All it takes is one catalyst to disrupt the cycle of the group’s norms and the individual’s behaviour for change to occur.

For leaders, this knowledge represents a profound opportunity. While you may not be able to force an individual to diverge from the group, you may be able to influence the perceived values and norms of the group in order to encourage the individual’s self-directed movement. To use the Broken Windows analogy, your simple efforts to tidy up the city may just be enough to encourage others to steward it well.

This idea reinforces the wisdom that the best leaders model the behaviour they wish to instil in the group. The good news is that with the active catalyst of a leader and their influence in place, change can happen. As individuals start to witness the social proof of a certain behaviour, their behaviour is likely to shift too.

[1] Ferrier, A. 2014, The Advertising Effect, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, pp. 91-94.

[2] Grenny, J. et al. 2013, Influencer, McGraw Hill, New York, pp. 252-253.

[3] Grenny, J. et al. 2013, Influencer, McGraw Hill, New York, pp. 252-253.

[4] Wilson, T. 2011, Redirect, Back Bay Books, New York, p. 151-152.

[5] Wilson, T. 2011, Redirect, Back Bay Books, New York, p. 151-152.

[6] Darnton, A 2008, ‘Reference Report: An overview of behaviour change models and their uses’, GSR Behaviour Change Knowledge Review, July.

[7] Darnton, A 2008, ‘Reference Report: An overview of behaviour change models and their uses’, GSR Behaviour Change Knowledge Review, July.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Feature image: Photo by Steven Lasry on Unsplash 

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