Why doing what we are told is so often a poor idea
Posted on 17 June 2009 by Carmine Coyote
Looking around, the evidence that conformity has brought us nearly to economic and financial ruin is overwhelming. Yet people still do it. I suspect it’s a much more common way to behave than its opposite—being independent and non-conformist—even here in the ‘Land of the Free’. So there has to be a reason, since the benefits of making your own decisions and choosing your own path through life are both obvious and logical.
Thinking about it, I find four reasons for the rampant conformity in our society and business world. None of them are good, but all are understandable in human terms. Maybe, by listing them and discussing them in depth, it will help people see that they are neither necessary nor desirable—even for ‘respectable’ people like you and me.
1. We are raised to conform and follow orders, so many of us get to like it.
From our birth, we are surrounded by people telling us what to do: when to eat, when to sleep, what to wear and how to behave. From parents, through other older family members, schoolteachers and anyone in charge of an activity we took part in, there is always someone who claims to know what’s best for us and is ready to make sure we do as we are told.
In fact, one of the earliest lessons we learn is that being loved and assisted by others—an essential requirement for any child—depends pretty much on doing what you are told. When, like all children, we try a little rebellion, we discover punishments can go beyond mere withdrawal of approval on a temporary basis. A small number of people refuse to follow this system, but most find it quickly becomes ‘normal’.
There’s another benefit too: it saves us having to make our own decisions and live by the consequences. By doing what we are told, we can shift responsibility for mistakes onto someone else. The excuse, “I was only following orders” probably began with the person who loaded the Ark and didn’t have the wit to make sure the two houseflies were trodden on by the elephants.
2. We tend to trust what the biggest crowd says is right
You would think we should have realized long before now that fashion is an extremely poor guide to sensible living, but no; we still rush to jump into every type of nonsense, rather than risk feeling left out. If the current recession should cause people to re-assess any of their beliefs, it is surely this one. Every cycle of boom and bust arises directly from the tendency people have to follow a crowd. There’s a famous book called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. It was written by Charles Mackay (1841-1889) and quickly became the classic work on popular manias of all kinds, financial and otherwise. If you haven’t already, read it.
Democracy may be based on following the wishes of the majority, but that is not a good guide in other areas of life. The government of a country needs to be based on making sure minorities and individuals, be they rich aristocrats or party members, can’t hi-jack the levers of power for their own purposes. In most of our personal life, we shouldn’t want to be part of the majority—we should want to stand out in some way.
3. We put far too much trust in ‘experts’ and authority figures
Nice, respectable people—like everyone who reads this article, naturally—don’t question authority or cause trouble. That’s why we do what officials of all kinds tell us to, from the police to the tax man. We are also brought up to respect obvious ‘experts’ like doctors (never mind that many are paid by drug companies to prescribe specific drugs or write papers proving they work), lawyers (who are never, of course, motivated by sordid motives like money), pastors and the clergy (I’ll say no more) and even media types and self-appointed gurus.
This deference to authority quickly spills over to include almost anyone who seems to know what they doing when we don’t. We therefore trusted bankers, mortgage ‘experts’ and financial advisers to look after our money. Look where that got us.
4. We are nearly all creatures of habit
Why do people buy the same brand for decades, despite evidence it costs more than it should and is no better than any of the others—even worse? Why do people drive to work by more or less the same route, at the same time, each day? Why do they watch the same TV channels, take the same type of vacation and spend their weekends doing the same things?
Why do organizations persist with products long after they have started to lose market share? Or follow approaches to management that have been in place for decades? Or refuse to change the way they operate until competitors force them to?
People frequently know what they are doing isn’t effective, healthy, logical, or even remotely sensible, yet they still do it. Why? It feels comfortable. They’re used to doing it that way. That’s the way things are done around here. Besides, many are terrified of change—usually because they’ve never done it except in the most dire emergency.
If you don’t use a muscle for years, or ever, then suddenly do something that demands you put some strain on it, it’s going to hurt badly. If you never change willingly, it will hurt terribly when you do. In both cases, it’s not the new activity that is the problem; it’s the total lack of use that went before.
Why you shouldn’t conform for the sake of it
· Making up your own mind ‘exercises’ your mental muscles, keeps your mind fit and encourages you to stay abreast of events. If you need any of those facilities (and you will), it’s better to keep them in trim than suddenly find they’re too rusty to work.
· There’s really no evidence that anyone knows what is right for you better than you do. After all, you’re the only one who knows what is going on inside your head and what matters to you most.
· Nearly everyone who is eager to tell you what to do is coming from their agenda, not yours. They want you to do what suits them. You probably ought to do what suits you.
· Following fashion and obeying orders without question leaves you wide open to manipulation and fraud.
· If you want to get on in life and do something important, you won’t do either by being like everyone else. The word ‘mediocre’ comes from the Latin word ‘medius’, meaning ‘in the middle’. No one ever stood out by fitting in.
· Being a conformist blocks any change until it’s too late to change easily or in your own time. Conformists go through life experiencing periods of monotony, interspersed with crises when they frantically try to find some one to tell them what to do as their world crashes around their ears.
· Organizations that follow ‘industry best practice’, benchmarking and other mechanistic ways of making sure they stay with the crowd, lay themselves wide open to being wrong-footed by any competitor willing to do something new and different.
If we learn nothing else from our recent brush with economic chaos and disaster it should be this: do what everyone else does and you’ll end up where everyone else is—in the ditch on the side of the road, watching the tail lights of the new leaders speeding into the distance.
Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.