Productive Nonconformity

“Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” – Emerson


When people think about nonconformity, they often think about superficial things – language, grooming, clothing, and even tools or toys.  But that is not the nonconformity that concerns me here.  The most powerful, useful, yet dangerous nonconformity is to speak out when all the forces around you compel you to silence.


Perhaps the best-known case concerning the need for nonconformity is the debacle that was Enron – 4000 jobs destroyed, $74 billion in lost shareholder value, billions more in losses by creditors, and the dissolution of Arthur Andersen represent only a portion of the final toll.  Based on the available information, one must assume that dozens, if not hundreds, of people knew that there were serious problems.  The only person who spoke up before the crash did so anonymously, and then quickly sold her own stock.


It’s no surprise why people didn’t speak up, especially inside the corporation.  Whenever they did, they were attacked, ridiculed, and even threatened.  Then-CEO Skilling attacked an analyst for questioning Enron’s accounting practices.  Then-Chairman Lay wrapped himself in the flag, and attacked Nobel economist Paul Krugman for pointing out the consequences of deregulation.  And the executive team considered firing the internal whistleblower, since state law provided no protection against such an act.


Today, even in the best of companies, I still hear people talking about the fear they have with speaking up.  Their (not unreasonable) concern is that speaking out or “challenging” others puts you square in the spotlight.  And, in the age of downsizing and long-term unemployment, nothing good seems to come from being in that spotlight.


It seems that either path – compliance or nonconformity – can put your interests at risk.  And compliance at the wrong time may even put the enterprise at risk.  So, what’s a person to do?  I believe that you need to develop both the courage and the skills to be a “productive nonconformist.”


Just to be clear, when I say “productive” I don’t mean to suggest that you offer up some nicey-nice, sugarcoated commentary that neither informs nor influences.  Instead, I want people to speak up in ways that serve the enterprise without attacking the audience.  Following are some specific steps you can take to become a productive nonconformist.


  1. Be compelling.  When you speak, make sure that you can immediately demonstrate the relevance of your concern to some strategic issue.  If you describe an issue that directly affects your audience, and you can make that connection clear and testable, then audience members may find it more difficult and less desirable to discount or attack you.
  2. Be broad-minded.  When you describe the issue, don’t lead with your parochial concerns, rather lead with the effects on the group or enterprise.  Don’t discount your personal concerns, because people may see that behavior as disingenuous or even manipulative.  Instead, lead with the larger effect, and then acknowledge the personal concern.
  3. Be specific.  Some leaders will never admit that the sky is falling – even when it is.  So, if you lead with a general claim that the sky is falling, and that there is nothing to be done, then those leaders will write you off as scared or weak.  When you speak, be as specific as possible about the nature of the issue, its (relevant) effects, and possible causes.
  4. Be positive.  Many leaders believe that they can overcome any obstacle – even if they can’t.  So, if you start by pointing out all the roadblocks, and only talk about the difficulties, then those leaders will write you off as incompetent.  When you speak, start with the assumption that the issue can be addressed effectively.
  5. Be non-judgmental.  In our leadership training, we teach the style of being direct, descriptive, and non-judgmental.  If you lead with judgments (bad, wrong, stupid) you will almost always encounter some type of resistance – avoid, evade, excuse, or even counterattack.  If you want people to engage the issue, drop the judgments and focus on the problem and its solution.
  6. Be proactive.  Whenever possible, it’s best to raise an issue early, when the effects are smaller and the options for action more numerous.  We find that it’s much easier to talk about an issue early when your approach is compelling, specific, and non-judgmental.  Too often, people initially avoid engaging due to fear.  But then the issue grows until it can no longer be avoided, which makes it much more difficult to discuss, diagnose, or resolve.  If you have the courage and the skills, it’s better to raise the issue early.


I hope that these guideline can help you find your voice and address the issues that affect your life and work.