As humans, our need for acceptance as teenagers becomes a significant barrier to success as adults. As adults, we must often be different to achieve success. The average worker, singer, or athlete finds success elusive. The acceptance paradox states that the need to be accepted during one stage in life can prevent success in another. Remember Aesop's fable, the Hare with Many Friends:
A Hare was very popular with the other beasts, who all claimed to be her friends. But one day, she heard the hounds approaching and hoped to escape them with her many friends' aid. So, she went to the horse and asked him to carry her away from the hounds on his back. But he declined, stating that he had important work to do for his master. "He felt sure," he said, "that all her other friends would come to her assistance." She then applied to the bull and hoped he would scare the hounds with his horns. The bull replied: "I am very sorry, but I have an appointment with a lady, but I feel sure that our friend the goat will do what you want." The goat, however, feared that his back might do her some harm if he took her upon it. The ram, he felt sure, was the proper friend to apply to for help. So, she went to the ram and told him the case. The ram replied: "Another time, my dear friend. I do not like to interfere on the present occasion, as hounds are known to eat sheep as well as hares." As a last hope, the Hare then applied to the calf, who regretted that he could not help her, as he did not like to take the responsibility upon himself, as so many older persons had declined the task. The hounds were relatively nearby this time, and the Hare took to her heels and luckily escaped. Moral of the story: He, with many friends, has no friends.
As teenagers and young adults, acceptance from our social peer group is significant during our formative years. The need to be accepted or fit in with a group may be essential for many to develop their own identity. Psychologists state peer acceptance can predict 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 as potential leaders later in life? I have discovered some powerful reasons why people seek mediocrity (or average) rather than excellence for themselves and the organizations they serve. Surprisingly, the challenge for greatness is often "not more difficult" to achieve. It simply requires a different mindset when presented with a problem.
Are we afraid of being other than ordinary? Is the preoccupation with acceptance or mediocrity rooted in fear? Is differentiation something we fear both professionally and personally? When working 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 yet cannot overcome the attraction of being similar.
"The common organization will always follow the leader organization. The common individual will rarely accomplish the uncommon. Organizations must learn and develop an intolerance for the ordinary by creating a culture for change. From the incubation of small changes to the implementation of wholesale differentiation in each market, leaders 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. The normalcy bias refers to people's extreme mental state when facing a challenging problem. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a challenge occurring and its possible effects. It also results in the inability of people to cope with a problem once it occurs. People with a strong normalcy bias have difficulties reacting to something they have not experienced before. They tend to interpret warnings in the most optimistic way possible, seizing on any ambiguities to infer a less serious situation. When confronted with a difficult situation, most people do not seek excellence; they want things to get back to normal.
In business terms, the normalcy bias causes leaders to make corrections to achieve comfortable rather than excellence. In a challenging environment, many leaders seek the comfortable (no matter how mediocre) rather than the change needed to prevent the same outcomes. These leaders may even lose their job or steer the organization into failure rather than making the necessary changes to be successful.
The acceptance paradox affects both individuals and organizations. Being different requires significant courage, and most seek the comfort and safety of being 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 comfortable. Examine yourself and your business for differentiation. What makes you truly different from your competition? Similar only better is not differentiation; it is competition.
True differentiation makes the competition irrelevant. Consider the blue water versus red water analogy. Red waters become filled with the blood of similar companies competing vigorously for the same resources and outcomes. Blue waters, on the other hand, lack the blood of competition. You are so different that you no longer compete with others. You are alone because you left the comfort and perceived safety of the shared group.
I challenge leaders to be different on purpose and move against the momentum of the competition. Moving against or away from the crowd gives you a different perspective on reality. Avoid the perpetual peer trap of the proven for something riskier. Do not overgeneralize the desire of the market and your buyers. If your hamburger is the same as your competition, you compete on price, perception, and convenience. However, if your burger is different (in a good way), people will talk about it, travel longer, and even pay more.
Trial and error from constant change is the best way to discover something different. Every change will not yield the success you seek. However, if your team is constantly working to move away from the crowd, you will eventually find something to make you different. Stop overgeneralizing by assuming the public (and your competition) has discovered the one best way to solve a problem. Reality is rarely as binary as we make it. Nature creates many versions of similar things to determine what works best in an environment or application. It would be fantastic if you did the same.