Conformity – are you a snowflake or a sheep?

We’re all individuals; we have unique fingerprints, dna and personalities. even the most identical of twins are not identical. we’re not ants running around unquestioningly, but non-conforming, intelligent humans whose every action is an expression of our own particular interpretation of the world surrounding us. we each have within us the ability to question and challenge the status quo.

so when it comes to how you perform in your negotiations, it is essential that you take this individuality into your interactions with the other party. if not, you risk being influenced into behaving in the way that suits the other party’s interests above your own.

this all sounds nice and straightforward, given how non-conforming, challenging and questioning you are.

however, you don’t have to look too far for examples of where individualism is repressed and conformity is encouraged. the alarming thing for some is just how easily people are brought ‘back into line’.

whether we like it or not, the tendency to conform is dictated by human nature. if you try to think of the best example of a non-conformist over the last 40 years, you may not think beyond jonny rotten, lead singer of the sex pistols, aka john lydon. to the dismay of many ageing punk rockers he was famously seen couple of years ago selling butter as the face of the country life advertising campaign. very rock ‘n’ roll!

the current term is ‘group-think’. in the immediate aftermath of the recent uk parliamentary elections, it was amusing to see the observers and commentators justify exactly why no-one who was paid for their insight seemed to call the result correctly. one of the bbc’s most senior political correspondents, john pienaar, said on the radio the day after the election that of course in the office he had been confidently predicting a narrow conservative victory, but to the public he had been predicting a hung parliament. the reason? he said that because everyone else, including the opinion pollsters, had predicted a hung parliament, he was guilty of ‘group-think’. in other words he conformed; he allowed others who had so confidently made their predictions from a position of apparent evidence to influence him away from his conviction.

the events that unfolded shortly afterwards were equally interesting. after the snp’s historic achievement (56 out of 59 seats in scotland won), they arrived in westminster to take their place in the very parliament that it is their express desire to leave, and refuse to be controlled by. it is therefore interesting to see to what extent they will observe the long-standing traditions of the house of commons. on the very first day, 2 things happened:

  • first, they took over the bench which included the space occupied by labour veteran dennis skinner for over 40 years. not one to shy away from a fight, he regained his cherished patch of green leather seating, almost literally elbowing them out of the way. ‘this is the way things are around here’ was the sentiment.
  • next, the snps clapped the first speech of this parliament given by one of their members in the chamber. they were immediately rebuked by the speaker who told them that there was a ‘long established and widely respected convention’ of not clapping, and he invited them to ‘show some respect to the traditions of the house of commons’. they haven’t clapped since.

it will be interesting to see to what extent these rebels now conform to the conventions, either formal or informal, which are not rules and certainly not laws, or if they will choose to act in their own instinctive way.

all of this is directly applicable to your negotiations.

do you allow your approach and behaviour to be influenced by circumstances, just because that is the way it has always been done? do you worry about challenging the perceived protocols and conventions, even if they exist to serve the other party’s interests?

you have to be in control in your negotiations, and at the first instance this means being in control of your own behaviours; have the courage of your convictions, don’t be influenced by their approach or tactics. you must trust your instinct and stick to your guns – but in order to be successful you may need to go against an overwhelming desire to conform under great pressure to do so. this means that you require a well thought through plan so that when things get tough you have the confidence of having anticipated some of these eventualities. after all, you can only stick to your plan if you have a well considered one in the first place.

so whilst we do not advocate being a rebel for the sake of it, don’t be a sheep either. develop your plan with all consequences and implications in mind, then stick to it. don’t get drawn into their plan – see if you can get them reacting to yours. after all, they have the same tendencies to conform as anyone else, so bear that in mind and anchor your position.


Dan Hughes

He has specialised in negotiation consulting since 2005, and set up his own business in 2012 bringing this expertise to businesses small and large in all parts of the world. This company - bridge][ability ltd - runs behavioural and strategic planning negotiation skills programs which transform capabilities and has a client list which includes Tesco, The FA, Fujitsu, Capita, Reiss, Take 2 Interactive (the company behind Grand Theft Auto), BBC Worldwide and Channel 4. http://www.bridge-ability.com/Home/Client-List

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