This snap-conversation made me reflect and think about my own attitude towards “world in general”. It seemed that the conversation could also be perfectly meant for me. I have this habit of thinking or reflecting about “this world in general”. This conversation kept lingering in my mind for many days during which I was not writing anymore; until I made up my mind about it. I knew that somehow I had felt the same “fear” the soldier had felt. More than anything else it was the fear of consequences in case of ‘nonconformity’.
Psychologists say that people in general ‘like’ others who are ‘like them’. Perhaps that explains why so many great individuals in our history were not understood in their own lifetimes and it was only centuries later that people went on to ‘worship’ them. People did not like them because those great individuals were not ‘like them’ (nonconformity); perhaps they were much better and lived up to higher principles. But people had no problem ‘worshiping’ them later on when those individuals were dead (and hence no threat anymore), because they would worship those individuals after elevating them on a higher platform; which essentially separated them from common masses. This meant that the common masses did not necessarily have to carry a burden of ‘trying to be like them’. World history tells that society has not been too kind towards ‘nonconformists’, be it the social reformers who thought differently or scientists who made radical discoveries.
I think not everyone needs to be chained by conformity; the military commanders who say, “do not think” and “do only what is told to you”. This is why someone famous said, "The opposite for courage is not cowardice; it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow." So true. If you try to do anything great; or better; you have to break ‘conformity’ of your family, friends, or colleagues. But no innovation or breakthrough is ever possible without breaking the ‘conformity mold’.
While working in organizations I have seen conformity doing so much harm! Many a time an employee knows a better way of doing something which is both cheaper and less time-taking; but due to prevailing ‘culture of conformity’ one decides to keep doing it the way it was told by the boss. And if an employee comes out with an idea to change things radically for the better, the idea is shot down as soon as possible by a committee or by the higher management, again because there is pleasure and comfort in the status quo! Worse is when the bosses or management ‘fake’ it that they respect new thinking; perhaps this may be called being conforming to appear nonconforming. If it goes on like this for a long time, the organization builds a very strong ‘culture of conformity’ with unshakable foundations. In the long term, it does much harm to the organization’s top line as well as bottom line; even driving it towards losing competitiveness or to bankruptcy!
Culture of conformity also plays a role in other areas of organizational management. It plays a role in recruitment where companies have fixed ideas about what type of employees they want to hire and what type they do not. It plays a role in selection of suppliers; or in deciding compensation, or in addressing demands from employee unions. The way it works, it goes well for a certain time after which the trouble starts showing in the form of different symptoms. Very often the organizations don’t really know what is wrong until some real damage is already done.
I think this is one area where the HR managers and senior management have to be very watchful. They should intervene at early signs of such a culture of conformity and also make transparent and fair policies and systems to avoid it in the first place. When John F. Kennedy said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth”, he meant it!
[Kumar Rahul [BE, MBA], works as Senior Consultant at Infosys Limited; based out of India. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect views of the organization the author is or has been associated with. Examples cited are for illustration purpose only. This article is also published on LinkedIn Pulse.]