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Finding the Courage to Be Different: The Acceptance Paradox

jon gruden quote

In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is a failure. In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being invisible.

—Seth Godin

It is interesting how truly ironic life can be when you are able to view it through the portal of wisdom. Experience is a valued old master that cannot be replicated, no matter how much we try. Our need to be accepted as teenagers is a significant barrier to success as adults. As adults, we must often be different from others to achieve success. The average student, worker, singer, or athlete is rarely blessed with success, by most definitions. The “acceptance paradox” states that the need to be accepted during one stage in life can actually prevent success in another.

During our formative years as teenagers and young adults, acceptance from our social peer group is important. In fact, the need to be accepted or fit in with a group may be the most important desire for many as they develop their own identities. Psychologists state that peer acceptance can be a predictor of both social and academic success. The need to be popular is an exaggerated version of peer acceptance by a particular social group.

So what is the difference between these two stages of life? How does this need to be accepted manifest itself for us as potential leaders later in life? I have discovered some powerful reasons that explain why people seek mediocrity or average performance rather than excellence for themselves and the organizations they serve. Surprisingly, the challenge for excellence is often not really more difficult to achieve. It simply requires that we adopt a different mind-set when we are presented with a problem.

Are we afraid of being other than ordinary? Is the preoccupation with acceptance or mediocrity rooted in cowardice? Is differentiation something we are conditioned to fear, both professionally and personally? When I work with organizations, the power of peer pressure becomes quite remarkable. People will seek the comfort and safety of being common over being set apart. Organizationally, the same tendencies exist as well. Competitive enterprises will mimic each other rather than set themselves apart. Ironically, most people know the importance of differentiation but cannot overcome the attraction of being similar.

“The common organization will always follow the leader. The common individual will rarely accomplish the uncommon. Organizations must learn and develop intolerance for the ordinary by creating a culture for change. From the incubation of small changes to the implementation of wholesale differentiation in a given market, leaders can either stall success or create new opportunity.” John Grubbs

Consider why some seek mediocrity instead of excellence in a moment of crisis. The normalcy bias explains a great deal about how we respond in difficult situations. Normalcy bias refers to an extreme mental state people enter when facing a challenging situation. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a challenge occurring and its possible effects. It also results in people’s ability to cope with a problem once it occurs. People with a normalcy bias have difficulty reacting to something they have not experienced before. People also tend to interpret warnings in the most optimistic way possible, seizing any ambiguities to expect a less serious situation. This means that, when confronted with a difficult situation, most people do not seek excellence; they want things to get back to normal.

Translated into business terms, the normalcy bias is what causes leaders to make corrections to achieve what is comfortable rather than to achieve excellence. In a challenging environment, leaders will seek the comfortable (no matter how mediocre) rather than the change needed to prevent the same failure. Leaders may even lose their jobs or steer the organization into failure rather than make the necessary changes to be successful.

Well, of course all babies are beautiful, and there are very few things more precious than a new life in this world. Yet the analogy of a baby to our work is interesting to consider. It is difficult, if not impossible, to not see extreme beauty in what we helped create. When we work hard on a project or invest a significant amount of time on anything, we become blinded by the emotional investment we have already made. We lose our objectivity and, in some cases, fall in love with the ugly baby we have created.

As a business coach, I often have the difficult task of informing an executive that his or her “baby” is ugly. This honest and objective feedback is rare and possibly extinct in many organizations. Subordinates simply will not (and in some cases cannot) be completely honest with the boss. This lack of objective feedback costs organizations millions of dollars because of what is commonly referred to as the “coloring of fact.” This coloring of fact represents the many initiatives that companies undertake and that eventually end in abysmal failure. It could be a horrible product line, a terrible advertisement, or even a major project in the organization. If the right leader at the right level loves the baby, it figuratively becomes beautiful.

The baby can be analogous to so many things in the workplace. It can be old “Bob,” who has been with the company for thirty years. Or it can be the tired old safety initiative that has become stale and ineffective. So what prevents unfiltered honesty in the workplace, and how can an organization develop more candid dialogue? The answer is much more complex than the question.

Feedback flows in three primary directions, and there are critical differences a leader needs to understand to maximize opportunity for the organization. Feedback from supervisor to subordinate has the fewest restrictions because it is expected to exist. Although it sometimes doesn’t really exist, we really do desire honest feedback from our supervisors. We expect and sometimes need affirmation of our hard work and effort to remain confident and secure in our actions. The challenge, however, is that most supervisors have never been taught how to give feedback properly. Some just wing it and hope for the best, while others avoid feedback at all cost.

Feedback from one peer to another (lateral feedback) presents its own challenges because it minimizes power in the relationship. It is analogous to siblings in a typical family hierarchy. Although power can exist in this relationship, it is more about strength and dominance than true lines of organizational authority. Individuals must learn a new and completely different method to deliver difficult feedback to a peer member.

Finally, delivering feedback to the boss is the most challenging direction for many of us. There can be subtle and significant restrictors that prevent the supervisor from getting the information he or she needs to make the best decisions for the organization. The problem, however, is that most difficult information never reaches those with the power to make the necessary changes.

Winston Churchill, while prime minister of England during World War II, knew he would not get the complete truth about what was going on with the war. He knew that his generals and close aides would intentionally and unintentionally filter information. To compensate for this, he created a special area close to his office and staffed it with young officers who collected raw data about troop movements, casualty reports, and other important information. He would look at this information to gain a better understanding of what was going on with the war rather than simply accepting an opinion or interpretation of the information from those closest to him.

The simple truth about any organization is that information does not travel upward with relative ease. It takes special skill and practice for a successful leader to create an environment that promotes candor and honesty. Many organizations I work with have extremely ugly babies no one is willing to acknowledge. These often range from major projects to corporate initiatives and even product lines that consume multibillion-dollar factories making ugly products that very few will buy.

To make matters worse, by the time critical mistakes are acknowledged, the opportunity for true accountability has expired. So many people have invested in the project that accountability becomes organizational rather than individual. Once this occurs, it is too late to assign single-point accountability, and blame starts to emerge. By this point, no one individual is willing to accept responsibility for the problem. Oddly enough, this is when the cycle can actually repeat itself, and yes, another ugly baby is born.

I can absolutely assure you that this phenomenon is occurring in your organization while you are reading this, regardless of its tenure or size. There is some thing, process, initiative, or person that everyone knows is wrong or broken in your organization, yet no one will speak up and call it ugly. This dirty little secret haunts your executive team—and more importantly, your bottom line.

The acceptance paradox affects both individuals and organizations. Being different requires significant courage; we often find comfort and safety in the ordinary. True success is most often found in those willing to attempt something others are not willing to do. Being unique is fascinating, while being common is boring. Examine yourself and your business for differentiation. Make sure you are not just another zebra in the herd.

Chapter 11 in my book "Leading the Lazy"