No great leadership story ever started with, “Yeah, there was this person who obeyed all the rules, never questioned anything they were told, and tried as hard as they could to fit in with those around them.”
That’s because great leaders are revolutionaries, and revolutionaries aren’t interested in social conformity. They’re interested in enacting radical transformational change. Think of people like Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa. Each person listed spent their lives fighting against a majority of people who wanted society left unchanged.
In a time where social conformity is the status quo, it takes courage to stick to your beliefs. Fighting for what you believe in, especially when it’s at odds with millions of others, can feel isolating and intimidating. However, fear isn’t enough to stop leaders who know their calling and purpose in life. As Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata once said, “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.”
If you’re a person who wants to be a leader, you must be aware of why you think the way you do. Thoughts directly affect your decisions and actions, which ultimately determine the level of change you’re capable of creating.
Being in control of your own mind is the difference between enacting change and being someone who makes it more difficult to enact change.
In this article learn:
- The answer to the question: “What is social conformity?”
- Signs you might be conforming.
- And how to stop conforming, so you drive impact and live a purpose-driven life
What is Social Conformity?
Social conformity occurs when a perceived group majority uses social influence and social pressure to gain more group members. Most commonly, the person conforming will need to change their thoughts, beliefs, values, behaviors, and actions to align with group norms. Otherwise, they will be viewed as an “outsider,” which is why most people conform in the first place.
Types of Conformity
No one hears “social conformity” and perceives it as a positive thing. Yet, most people do conform in one way or another. For instance, the Asch Conformity Experiment showed that 75 percent of people are willing to conform at least once.
But why? Find out more about the three types of conformity in social psychology and the various reasons they occur below.
- Involves the acceptance of social influence on a public and private level.
- Aligns with someone’s existing values and beliefs.
- Causes the person socially conforming to internalize and adopt how a group thinks, acts, and behaves.
- Is intrinsically rewarding (meaning it’s internally motivated).
- Often led by a credible, knowledgeable, and influential figure who seems above questioning because they already have all the answers (informational conformity).
- Serves as the most extreme and dangerous type of social conformity.
Your highly successful boss hates in-office work and is on a mission to eradicate it nationwide at every company. You prefer working from home already, which causes you to join in the fight. As time goes on, you internalize the belief that in-office work is evil, which makes you loathe it. This might cause you to participate in violent protests against it.
- Happens when someone wants to define who they are.
- Involves developing an identity based on a larger group of people.
- Requires changing to follow social norms established by the majority (normative conformity).
- Shows public acceptance of the group’s values and beliefs.
- Doesn’t mean the person privately accepts these beliefs or the group’s behavior.
- Is less extreme than internalization.
You join a writing mastermind group full of other writers. During the first meeting, you notice everyone in the group is wearing glasses, brown sweaters, and jeans. The next time the group meets, you wear the “writer’s uniform” to show you are a writer too. However, in private, you admit it isn’t your favorite look.
- Starts by being given a choice to accept the majority’s beliefs.
- Becomes an option when someone fears real danger or craves a sense of belonging.
- Ends with a person giving in due to social pressure.
- Is most similar to identification because you publicly approve, while you might privately disagree with the group.
- Isn’t as serious as the other types of conformity. Many people who comply eventually stop complying.
You face punishment by the majority due to your internal beliefs. To avoid this, you outwardly follow social norms that you don’t necessarily agree with.
How to Avoid Social Conformity
“The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.”Rollo May
Social conformity is tempting if you feel like love, acceptance, safety, and security are waiting on the other side. Yet, as John F. Kennedy once said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” History shows that societies crumble when people stop thinking for themselves and start adhering to whatever a majority leader says.
On the other hand, progress, change, and innovation occur when individuals think deeply about who they are, what their purpose is, what they believe, and why.
Learn more about how to resist social conformity and become a transformational leader below.
1. Create an Anchor
“The outstanding usually bear the brunt of an attack.”Chinese Proverb
As philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer explains, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Leaders who strive to do great things put a target on their backs. More than anyone else, the majority will try to silence you and get you to conform. This is intimidating, but you do have a secret weapon that protects you: your roots. How deep these grow determines whether or not your tree will topple during storms.
To avoid social conformity, you need to grow deep roots and convictions in these areas:
- Identity: Who you are.
- Character: What qualities make you the person you are.
- Purpose: What drives you.
- Beliefs: Which ideas you have faith in, know are rooted in truth, and will fight to uphold.
- Values: What beliefs influence how you think, act, and behave.
Look at people like Moses, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt. All of these leaders had deep roots and strong convictions. As a result, they instigated transformational change in the world.
2. Create a Vision for Your Life
“Revolution only needs good dreamers who remember their dreams.”Tennessee Williams
To take the right path in life, you must have a vision that gives you an eternal perspective. This means thinking, behaving, and acting in a way that aligns with knowing where you came from, why you were born, and what lies ahead beyond your time on Earth.
To be a nonconformist with a vision:
- Start asking deep questions to get clear on your purpose. What do you want your future to look like? What problem in the world bothers or angers you? Do you feel a moral imperative to solve it? Are you willing to make sacrifices to resolve this issue?
- Develop a plan of action. Once you have a vision of a better future in mind, reverse engineer it. What steps do you need to take to solve this problem? How can you raise awareness? Why should other people care and take action?
- Work on a vision statement. Creating a vision statement helps you clarify what vision you’re working toward. It also makes your vision more shareable with others.
- Stop taking criticism to heart. More often than not, criticism is a distraction. If someone makes a valid point, be flexible and willing to listen. However, don’t conform just because people don’t like what you’re doing. When you have a big picture perspective, others’ influence doesn’t matter.
3. Work on Your Character
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”Helen Keller
Social conformity shows a weakness in character because a person isn’t strong in their values and beliefs. They’re willing to stop thinking and acting for themselves because this seems to be what everyone else is doing. As written in Pearls of Eternity by Rwandan writer Bangambiki Habyarimana, “People would rather live in a community with unreasonable claims, than face loneliness with their truth.” However, when you have strong character, you choose truth over fitting in with the flock.
To develop your character:
- Work on cultivating the fruits of the spirit. Actively develop love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
- Make a list of people you respect, trust, and admire. Write down the leadership qualities or traits that they exemplify. Next, have a conversation with them about how you can further increase these characteristics.
- Schedule in time to work on your character. Devote time during your week to work on yourself. This might include penciling in time to learn more about empathy, servant leadership, inclusive leadership, or emotional intelligence.
- Put it into practice. Implement every new skill you learn that strengthens your character. Growth requires putting yourself to the test.
4. Go Deep, Not Wide
“Enter ye in by the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction.”Matthew 7:13–14
There is a way. However, avoiding social conformity and taking the right path is more difficult. This is because, in today’s society, people crave instant gratification. They don’t want to be patient and walk the straight and narrow path because it takes more time.
Look around you.
How crowded is the path you’re on? Are there thousands of other people thinking, acting, and behaving just like you? As Mark Twain once said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
You should stand out and be radically different from others as a leader.
Don’t be afraid to take the journey.
To go deeper, not wider:
- Get a mentor. Connect regularly with someone who has walked the path you’re on successfully.
- Shift your mindset to look for opportunities to dig deep. Make it a point to understand the way things work. For instance, when Steve Jobs created the iPod, his sole focus was developing the best version of the product. So much so, he wouldn’t take meetings for anything else during this time.
- Give yourself time to think. Clear away blocks in your schedule for thinking time. This will help you root down into your identity, purpose, vision, and next steps in life.
Redefine What Success Means to You
“The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself.”Rita Mae Brown
People who don’t have a firm grasp on what success means to them are the first to socially conform. Yet, doing so never provides a sense of true fulfillment or happiness because you’re living someone else’s definition of success.
Missing out on the calling God specifically made for you brings you feeling a lack of purpose. Even if you’re with the “in crowd,” you won’t feel at peace. You’ll still find yourself anxiously searching for something more.
The only way to stop this feeling is to stop conforming.
The tips listed above will help you create a vision for your life rooted in purpose. When you know yourself and your true value, it’s easy to avoid conforming to whatever the perceived majority wants.
Check out this next article to learn how to gain a strong sense of identity grounded in purpose and meaning:
Having an Identity Crisis? Here’s How to Find Out Who You Are