The High Cost of Conformity, and How to Avoid It

I was biking with my friends Eric and Adam, both far more skilled and experienced mountain bikers than I, on terrain that was slightly beyond my own skill. I thought I could do it.

I was wrong.

I suffered a pretty dramatic crash, falling down a ravine, flipping over a few times, and hitting my (helmeted) head on a tree. Eventually, I ended up in the emergency room. But not before riding another hour.

Everything turned out fine, but continuing after my crash was a poor decision. Not only was I riding injured, but, because I was tight with fear, I fell many more times.

Why didn’t I stop? I wish I could say it was bravery but, the truth is, it was nothing of the kind. I kept riding, quite simply, because Eric and Adam kept riding.

There are a host of tangled reasons, of course: I didn’t want to disrupt their ride or feel like a wimp who couldn’t handle a few falls, or give up on something that I started. But the real reason? I continued because they did.

It turns out that I’m not alone. The research shows that, even as adults, we tend to conform to the behaviors of those around us. If your colleagues take sick days, then you’ll start taking them too. If your colleagues are messy, you’ll become more messy too.

Which is not such a big deal, really. Until it is.

By now you probably know that, for the past seven years, Volkswagen has been installing software in diesel cars to manipulate emissions tests and illegally sidestep pollution standards. They’ve been lying to millions of consumers.

When Michael Horn, head of Volkswagen Group of America, testified at a recent congressional hearing, he said that he believed only “a couple of software engineers” were responsible.

Seriously? Only a couple? As of 2014, Volkswagen employed 583,000 people. Surely more than two people knew about this deception. Why didn’t anybody say anything?

I’ve written before about how aggressive goal setting can lead to cheating, lying, and misdirected efforts. And certainly we’ve heard that Volkswagen’s culture was brutally focused on achieving their goals..

But seven years and 11 million cars later, you would think that someone would say something. But they didn’t. Because saying something, when nobody else is saying anything, is really, really hard.

Still, that’s what leadership calls us to do. Leadership is the willingness to move in a different direction than others. If we want to lead, then the real question — for you and me — is how can we resist the pull of conformity and stand courageously in truth and right? How can we live the values that make us and our colleagues trustworthy?

1. The first step is to have clear, strong, and committed values. What do you believe in? And how resolutely are you willing to stand behind those beliefs? Are you willing to be vulnerable? To be embarrassed? To be disliked? To be fired? Powerful, trustworthy leaders answer yes to all of those questions.
2. The next step is to want to see what is going on around you. Can you see it for what it is?
3. Finally, you need the courage to act when something is going on that is out of sync with your values. To say something. To stand up to power, if that’s what it takes. And to do it skillfully, and with respect, so that you are more likely, not only to succeed, but also to preserve the relationships around you where possible.

This last one — courage — is the most difficult. Difficult because it requires that we go against the norm of what is going on around us. And, while that might be something we’re born with, it doesn’t come naturally to us as adults. It takes practice.

Practice in small ways. Keep common workspace clean when everyone around you is leaving it messy. Work every day even when the people around you are taking sick days. Act or speak differently than the people around you. Choose not to eat dessert or drink when everyone else is. Make different choices than others.

When you do those things, slow down enough to feel its impact on you. Knowing that you can tolerate that feeling is the secret to escaping its hold on you. And that gives you the freedom to act in line with your values.

If we assume that more than a couple of individuals knew about the software scam at Volkswagen, then they fell down in one of these three steps. Either they weren’t clear, strong, and committed to the value of truth and honesty in business. Or they chose not to see. Or they lacked the courage to say something.

But I know that it’s hard. They would have been risking their friends, their jobs. They would have violated the trust of some co-workers in order to maintain the trust of other co-workers and customers. They would have had to stand alone. Those are hard decisions to make.

I should know. I biked an hour longer than I should have, injured and falling, because I lacked the courage to tell my friends — supportive, caring friends — that I had had enough.

I guess I need more practice.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review


  1. Jae-ann Rock says:


    You’ve once again hit the mark!

    If we are each to become our best – as individuals, as companies, as a society – it is critical that people become willing to take a stand, to speak up and stand up for what is right, to short-circuit this culture of conformity.

    Thank you and kudos to you for shining a light on this pervasive issue!

  2. Andy Wittwer says:

    Thanks Peter. Articles about showing courage are always timely!

  3. lwoods says:

    I agree. So I’ll take step 3 with you. It’s “different from,” and “differently from.” You don’t say “apart than,” so don’t say “different than,” either. Even if the majority of people around you do.

  4. Sue Pridgen says:

    One of your examples was about having a messy work space. If your co-workers have messy work spaces then you may tend to let your work space become messy. Mine was just the opposite. I couldn’t handle working in a messy space. I couldn’t keep up with what I had to do. But being organized, believe it or not, hurt my image. Instead of coming off as efficient. It made me look like I didn’t have enough to do. Compared to my other co-workers. All of whom were fairly unorganized organized if that is an oxymoron term. So I was put in the cubical that wasn’t visible unless walking into our department. While the others were visible just by walking down the isle.
    The other was just before I had my seizure and left. I had been put in a couple of situations where I had the opportunity to speak up when something was not done correctly and we were in a meeting. The one that I spoke up in and found out 20 years later I could have been called on it and been embarrassed by one of the guys from another department. We had dinner meetings once every six months. But your department didn’t go with it’s boss. So there was a mixture of departments and the plant manager gave an overview of where the company was going. We had spent a lot of money on machine rebuilds. I had performed what my boss termed machine capability. (Set up let run no changes and no variables). I did the study and the machines showed they were not capable. I spoke up and said so. After one of the guys that had worked on the rebuild had just made the statement that they were. The plant manager wasn’t happy with my statement. He asked me how did I know that. I said because I did the studies. He still wasn’t a happy camper. I told him if he wanted to see the data I had it back at the plant he could take a look at it on Monday. He didn’t ever ask for the data. And the guy that said the rebuilds were capable never argued with what I said. Now 20 years later I found out that there is another test that is done on a machine to test for it’s capability. It’s called a Turn Test. I had never heard of it then. They never called me on it. Had I known I would have loved to have seen it done. My study should have fell under the term machine – Process Capability. Because there were so many variables. Also it was the type of parts we ran not just the machines.
    I spoke up and from what I knew and was taught by our terminology and data I was correct. I do wish that I had been taught about the other test though.
    But at work when put in the position I was not a “yes man” excuse the generalization man… person.
    But when it comes to hanging with your friends like what happened with you. I can see where that came from.

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