Barriers to Change: Conformity

Conformity encourages people to stick to old behavior—but convert enough people, and you'll reinforce new behaviors

It might be one of the most frustrating paradoxes change leaders experience: teams keep repeating the same outdated behavior simply because everyone else is doing it, so no one is adopting the new, desirable behavior. But if more people did adopt the new behavior, then others would quickly do it, because that’s now what everyone else is doing. 

Conformity can work for you: if you can convert enough people to a new behavior, it’s more likely to become the default at your organization.

Conformity is a type of passive learning; individuals are just copying others’ behaviors without reflecting or questioning the act. People conform for several simple reasons:

  • Ease and convenience: It doesn’t require critical thinking, which takes time and energy that teams may not have.
  • Normative social influence: Individuals want to feel like they’re a part of the group, and copying their behaviors is an effective way to ingratiate yourself with others.
  • Informational social influence: People assume others are already doing things the right way, so there’s no need to try something different. This is especially important when people in positions of authority and influence visibly participate in a behavior, as other teams are likely to look at them to decide what to do. 

So how do you break the cycle? The good news is that conformity can work for you: if you can convert enough people to a new behavior, it’s more likely to become the default at your organization, and therefore self-sustaining. To start winning more people over to your side:  

  • Target key influencers. Thinking about the number of people who need to work differently can feel overwhelming, but you don’t have to convince them one by one. Instead, convince authority figures and well-connected people to adopt and promote the change. And remember, these individuals might not necessarily have a title—soft power can be even more effective when it comes to making change.
  • Introduce tools for reflection and critical thinking. Sometimes people just need a little push to realize a process isn’t helping them personally—and that it’s ok to question the status quo in an effort to make it better. For instance, holding retros can teach teams to assess common processes and determine what’s working for them (or not).
  • Re-train. People often default to a behavior because they simply don’t know any other way. Make sure you provide training—ideally, hands-on, over a period of time, and with feedback incorporated—so that people experiment with the behavior you want. It should also be established as a part of any onboarding, when new members are eager to learn “the way things are done around here.”
  • Use the “Pirate Paradigm.” To kickstart change, you may need to designate a group with the right to bend the organization’s usual operating procedures. Two important provisos: first, be very clear about what’s appropriate for the team to test. They should feel free to question group norms, not safety restrictions or legal mandates. And second, to avoid an “us vs. them” situation, they should share learnings quickly and encourage others to follow their lead. 
  • Hold teams to objective standards. Again, people conform because it’s the path of least resistance—why make trouble if everyone’s reasonably content? But if you hold them accountable to a metric, and ask people to share their reasoning for why they chose their particular course of action, they’ll be more critical of their actions.
  • Celebrate when people do break the mold. The first person or team to break conformity is often punished (“the tall poppy gets cut down”). Protect your team when they try something different, and incentivize new behaviors. 
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Barriers to Change: Conformity
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