nonconformity fish

Developing Authentic Leadership

By Todd Fonseca
Medtronic

May 21, 2019

Editor’s Note: I recently had the honor of hosting a client advisory board retreat for a large organization. Leaders from a number of other large and successful companies gathered to offer honest feedback. One of the most surprising benefits to the participants, however, turned out to be the opportunity to connect with each other. They found great value in sharing the challenges of leadership with other leaders, even those from different industries and locations. It turns out, they all face many of the same questions, about their organizations and their own roles.

In our rapidly evolving industrial landscape, the importance of engaged, informed, knowledgeable, responsive and authentic leadership is greater than ever.  But becoming that type of leader is also harder than ever, especially as leaders have their own behavioral biases to overcome. Todd Fonseca offers one grounded approach below.

 

The Kakuma refugee camp in Northwestern Kenya was established in 1991, the same year as the collapse of the Somali government and the ensuing civil war. Kakuma is one of many camps in Kenya that host displaced Somali refugees. Many Somalis have been in this camp for years, with children that know no other life than that inside the camp. One such child, Halima Aden, and her family “stood in long lines for water and had to barter for pots and pans and coal. She drank PediaSure in the camp because she was underweight. She grew accustomed to the taste and still drinks it.”

Resettlement of Somali refugees is handled by the U.S. State Department, but voluntary agencies help and, since Minnesota has very active ones like Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities and World Relief Minnesota, a number of Somalis call Minnesota their home. Halima is one such Somali, ever since leaving Kakuma at the age of 7.

Known by her friends as someone who will consistently “try things no one else will,” Halima entered the Miss Minnesota USA Pageant. Halima transformed the competition when, in order to stay true to herself and her religious beliefs, she wore a Hajib and “burkini” during the swimsuit portion of the competition.

Being a 19-year-old is hard enough – with peer pressure and social media Kardashian conformity messages – yet this young Somali refugee girl stood on a large stage and took on the decades-old established pageant industry, not to mention society’s even less tolerant members.

That is authenticity. Halima’s story has important lessons for all of us who might aspire to – but fall short of – authentic leadership.

 

As people grow in their careers from individual contributors to management and leadership levels, they seem to lose their guiding principles and start acting like all of the other leaders.

 

The Asch Conformity Experiments

In 1956, Solomon Asch conducted a number of experiments titled Studies of Independence and Conformity: I. A Minority of One Against a Unanimous Majority. In these trials, participants were shown a figure with a line and asked to compare it to a second figure with three lines.

One by one, the participants were asked to announce which of the figures in the right box matched the figure in the left box. What one of the participants didn’t know, however, was that everyone else in the room was working with the researchers and, in 12 of the 18 trials, these “confederates” all gave the same incorrect answer. The actual participant was near the last to declare their answer. The question was whether or not the actual participant would be influenced by the confederate majority to conform and give the wrong answer or would he or she stand out and announce the correct answer.

In the 12 “wrong” group answer cases, 75% of participants in the experiment conformed and gave the same wrong answer at least once during those 12 trials, even though the answer was obviously incorrect. They conformed and went against their own better judgment.

While most of us think we’d be in the 25% minority, this simply isn’t true. These studies have been repeated and the results have held up over time. The pressure to conform to a group and not be an outcast is greater than the pressure to be right.

Decades later, in 2005, researchers repeated this test to determine what is cognitively happening during the experiment. Are the participants consciously making their choice or is something else happening? To understand the answer to this question, researchers took MRIs of participants to understand which areas of their brains were activated under different scenarios.

What they found was surprising. “There was no activity in brain areas that make conscious decisions…” in either the conformity or non-conformity scenarios. Instead, they found that the conformity group had activation in the area of their brains associated with spatial awareness. It was as if their brains were reinterpreting what they saw in order to bend reality to the group’s perception. It was an unconscious act of brain rationalization. Whereas the non-conformity group had brain activity in the amygdala and other areas associated with strong emotions related to fight, flight or freeze.

 

It was as if their brains were reinterpreting what they saw in order to bend reality to the group’s perception.

As people grow in their careers from individual contributors to management and leadership levels, they seem to lose their guiding principles and start acting like all of the other leaders. The Asch experiments indicate this may not be a conscious act per se but an unconscious assimilation process to bend reality to fit the group norm.

But all is not lost. There are those who, like Halima, remain authentic. What sets them apart? Some of it is their inherent personality, but there are other attributes we can all leverage to make it more likely for us to remain thoughtful and authentic.

 

Your Acceptance Group

 In a 2011 paper, Nathan DeWall and Brad Bushman reviewed research on social acceptance and rejection. They describe how evolutionarily, social acceptance was critical to survival.

“With no fangs, fur, or claws, and with long, vulnerable childhoods, humans are ill-suited to fulfill their survival and reproductive needs living in isolation. Given these vulnerabilities, early humans survived harsh environments by depending on small groups of other individuals to meet many of their survival and reproductive needs.

Because our ancestors evolved in small groups, social rejection likely signified a death sentence. Even among early civilizations, such as that of the Greeks, exile and death were treated as equivalent punishments.”

Robert Chaldini in his book Influence, discusses the importance of social proof. That is, when we see others all doing the same thing, in ambiguous situations we tend to go with the crowd as both a short circuit to the “correct course of action” but also to not ostracize ourselves from the group and “suffer” from social rejection.

The way you can use this to your advantage is by having a clear sense of who your core acceptance group is, so that no matter the situation, you always feel safe knowing you belong to a group.

 

Have a clear sense of who your core acceptance group is, so that no matter the situation, you always feel safe knowing you belong to a group.

Halima, for example, has extremely strong ties with family and her religious community. They serve as a foundation that, regardless what happens, is always there for her. She didn’t grow up with other pageant participants or identify with this group. In fact, she knew she was an outsider and brought her group and her beliefs with her when she stood on that stage.

And while she did not win Miss Minnesota USA, her story, presence and confidence landed her a modeling job where she now graces international runways while still true to her beliefs. How does she make sure not to lose herself and begin to identify with this new group of models? By committing to and spending time with her core acceptance group.

When not modeling around the globe, Halima continues to work at a St. Cloud hospital, pushing her cleaning cart through the halls, changing bedsheets and scrubbing toilets. “I still do the things I used to do before,” she said. “I’m still a part of this community.”

Not only do you need to know who your core acceptance group is, but you must spend significant time with this group. We become the average of the people we are surrounded by. As you move into leadership roles, you may spend more time working and less time with your core acceptance group. If all that remains is your leadership work group and if social acceptance is critical to your survival and your core group is gone, you’ll suddenly find yourself unconsciously conforming to this group and losing your authenticity.

 

If all that remains is your leadership work group … you’ll suddenly find yourself unconsciously conforming to this group and losing your authenticity.

 

Avoiding Loss Aversion

Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” introduces the concept of loss aversion and how the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. Essentially, once we have something, we don’t want to give it up, and conformity is safest way to keep what we have and avoid loss.

But we shouldn’t think about it as potentially giving things up as much as it is knowing and appreciating the important aspects of your life that can never be taken away.

For Halima, she has put her modeling career in perspective. “I have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, let me make the most of it, and let me have a good time … Because modeling could just be a one-season thing for me, and that’s something I’m OK with.’”

When you believe the same, you will no longer be saddled with loss aversion.

 

Practice Nonconformity

Our brains are hardwired to react in certain ways to seek acceptance and avoid loss, both of which make it almost impossible to avoid conformance. The only way to be successful then, is to practice the skills noted above and to practice nonconformity.

By practicing small acts of nonconformance, you will recognize and subsequently become comfortable with the heart racing, stomach tightening, self-doubt, embarrassment and other associated feelings, making it more likely that you will make good, conscious versus unconscious decisions.

If you are looking for some “small acts” ideas to practice, consider the following:

  • If you are a person who has trouble disagreeing, give yourself one “No” each day for a week when asked to do something at home or at work.
  • If you are self-conscious about what you wear or how you look, purposely wear different socks, mismatched shoes, or refrain from wearing makeup for a day.
  • If you use social media, try posting something different from your norm.

The idea is to know yourself, identify something that makes you slightly uncomfortable, and do it. Psychologists call this cognitive behavioral therapy. Basically, through repeated exposure to something uncomfortable, the reaction we have can be muted and controlled.

Once you have practiced this skill on smaller, less significant issues and built up your confidence, when you are faced in the future with a situation that would otherwise be threatening, you will have the skills to stay true to yourself and your values.

 

Know yourself, identify something that makes you slightly uncomfortable, and do it. Psychologists call this cognitive behavioral therapy.

As you come to better understand the story of Halima Aden, what you’ll find is someone whose life experience, relationships, beliefs and inherent character have created a person who has the skills to be authentic in all aspects of her life. But being authentic isn’t something one can easily do simply by reading an inspiring story. We must understand that it is a characteristic and skill that can and needs to be developed. We need to have a core acceptance group, understand and combat loss aversion, and practice small acts of nonconformity to build the authenticity muscle.

Ironically, the key to being an authentic leader is what you do, where you spend your time and with whom you spend it when you are not in that leadership role.

 

We need to have a core acceptance group, understand and combat loss aversion, and practice small acts of nonconformity to build the authenticity muscle.

 

An unedited version of post originally appear on Todd’s blog.

 

By Todd Fonseca
Medtronic

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