I’m going to be upfront and honest: I don’t have the all answers; I can’t offer you specific solutions. But, what I’m hoping I can offer is insight on the issue and some options to help you navigate it. The death of creative, original thinking in today’s corporate environment is systemic. It’s drowning out creative, original problem solving, critical thinking, more honest communication between work silos and titles, and better, more efficient process in favor of blindly powdering the ass of corporate hierarchical structures and not challenging the status quo. Ultimately, creative non-conformists are being penned up and silenced.
It’s known as “groupthink”. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a few months now, and after reading Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (which I highly recommend), I thought it was a topic worth having a discussion about. You must have thought it too, or you wouldn’t be here.
What is Groupthink?
Groupthink values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation, causing individual members to unquestioningly follow the leader. It strongly discourages any disagreement with the consensus.
It’s not just Fortune 500’s and multi-national behemoths suffering under the weight of rigid groupthink, it’s the up-and-coming-razor’s-edge start ups and SMBs too. No one is protected. Think of it as an earthbound Borg – assimilate or die.
And those who do resist conformity on that level don’t last very long. You may hear these folks referred to as “problem children”, “not going-with-the-flow”, “pessimistic/negative”, and in some instances outright “cancers”. And, once you’re hit with that label, you can’t recover. You can’t dig yourself out of it, and there’s no changing anyone’s mind.
Sure. Some people do want to watch the world burn. They exist; they’re out there. But, I would urge you to resist that interpretation and labeling of the non-going-with-the-flow, difficult, perceived “cancers”, as people who are truly trying to help the company and are trapped by Groupthink.
I like the term non-conformist. I like creative and original thinkers; I really like creative problem-bringers. I worked with several people that fit that description. Hell, if we’re being honest, I’m one of them. Those are adequate, fine labels if classifying is your thing.
What Traditional Groupthink Looks Like
It’s not what you envision. It’s doesn’t look like a gang of suits roaming down the office hallway shouting down opposition (though it might depending on your situation). And, it isn’t an office full of employees dressed in tan khakis and black polo shirts (that would be alarming in a Matrix-esque way). As Grant states, “Once a market becomes dynamic, [big] companies with strong cultures are too insular: They have a hard time recognizing the need for change…they’re more likely to resist the insights of those who think differently.”
Essentially it’s systemic: the strong culture installed at inception, that helped you survive, has now become your undoing. It fosters confirmation bias and the “bring solutions, not problems” C-suite and management style. And, God help you, if the solution you bring to the table isn’t in-line with the credo. Causing that kind of uncomfortability and turning the mirror inward on the company’s own ego and processes, is as close as you can come to signing your own death warrant. Perhaps the C-suite takes the attitude of, “We were here before you. And, we will be here after you. Keep your head down, thoughts to yourself, and do the work.”
Maybe you’re nodding your head. Maybe there’s that team member of yours that fits this profile. Whichever it is, Groupthink doesn’t have to be the status quo, and I want to discuss some ways to work within Groupthink to help our self-proclaimed non-conformists break through.
Creating Inside the Groupthink Box
At any given point inside an organization dominated by Groupthink, a non-conformist has three choices:
Lose what makes you original and creative, succumb to Groupthink
- Leave. Head for the hills and don’t look back
- Recognize and know what you’re in and start creating within that box
Really, there are only two options. Because even if you did abandon yourself to the group, it never lasts. It’s a plastic tarp windshield or a coat of paint over rust. Perhaps a year, maybe three, but it’s a facade; you’re true mode of being will return. But only fiercer and more pissed off. And, that really is a recipe for disaster. Those are stories you hear about by the coffee station years later. That’s the stuff of infamous lore and legend. And, mentally, you never really recover: you never get back all of you. It’s a permanent mental scar you’ll carry around forever.
If leaving isn’t an option – because responsibilities, because short tenure, because a resume that looks like a frog in a dynamite pond, because all the things and reasons – then you’re really left with figuring out how to worldbuild inside a box that, frankly, doesn’t care for you.
Embrace Your Fear
Positive thinking helps, and optimism is a river of gold if funneled properly. But, fear, which we’re told to push aside in favor of optimism, has its own place as powerful fuel. Especially at the outset. Embrace that fear and turn it into negativity – counter-intuitive, right? It works. It’s dangerous to be sure, but it works.
Big presentation? Assigned what seems like an impossible project? Speaking at a conference of your peers? This is when negativity is your ally. You turn that anxiety into fuel to slow down and think through every single worst-case scenario. And, in slowing down, you find and build more creative ways to do the impossible. Whatever happens moving out of that line of thought, is positive. As Grant points out, “…when we’re anxious, the unknown is more terrifying than the negative.”
The danger is consistently and constantly fueling yourself with fear and the power of negative thinking. As potent a fuel as it is, like battery acid, it has power to corrode and permanently warp your neural pathways. The real trick non-conformists have to learn is to alchemize FEAR into inspiration and excitement.
The Funniest Devils Advocate You’ve Ever Met
Humor is powerful. Not only does it pry open mental doorways to allow difficult ideas a space to breathe, but it’s as powerful a cohesive as any I know. Find ways to build humor into challenges through visuals or through metaphors. It’s easier to get folks on-board when there is a mutual feeling of a shared joke. And, sometimes, it’s the only recourse when an entire team is feeling beat down by groupthink and feeling powerless.
It’s a powerful way to convert fear into a positive emotion that can elicit action. One of my favorite examples of this is Srdja Popovic’s “Installing Freedom”.
Re-Framing Your Argument & Finding One Person
The thing about humans; we make it all about us. It’s perfectly natural to do that. Except, of course, when you’re in an environment that focuses on “we” – the “me” should take a backseat. As a non-conformist, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “me”: this thing over here and that thing over there, it’s affecting me. Most corporate leaders don’t take kindly to criticisms of process or attitudes. It’s another death warrant moment.
Instead of riding into the fight without armor, teeth gritted, sword drawn, take a moment to re-frame the argument. Find an angle that works to create empathy for the greater good as opposed to the single-you. When leaders see the issue spiraling out to touch whole chunks of people instead of this an individual or two, they’ll be more likely to listen and work to make change. You can re-frame yourself from “corporate martyr” into “people’s champion”.
And, it always helps to find even one other person who feels the way you do (and, you can both hum Peter Frampton if you like). The possibility that you’re alone in your feelings are pretty slim. Find that one person, those couple people, that see the same thing you do and work together.
Doing The Work
Like I said, I haven’t got this all down either. It takes a hell of a lot work and introspection to be able to do even one of these things. But, I’m committed to doing the work. I know enough about me to know that I’m a creative by nature, a non-conformist by nature, and I believe in finding a better way for things to get done. For finding ways to make status quo and continual tide of evolution as both a leader and partner. Hopefully this post gave you the fuel to do that work too, and help you become the best creative, non-conformist you can be.