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The Acceptance Paradox

John Grubbs

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 in order 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 very 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 identity.  Psychologists state peer acceptance can actually 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 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 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 cowardice?  Is differentiation something we are conditioned to 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 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.”

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 an extreme mental state people enter when facing a challenging situation. It causes people to underestimate the both the possibility of a challenge occurring and also its possible effects. It also results in the inability of people to cope with a problem once it occurs. People with a normalcy bias have difficulties reacting to something they have not experienced before. People also tend to interpret warnings in the most optimistic way possible, seizing on any ambiguities to infer a less serious situation.  This means 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 very same failure.  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 while 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.