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PERSONALITY: Why We Fear Doing Things Differently

In November 2011, NDC blogger Michael Harrington wrote about three different types of people: the Conserver, the Pragmatist and the Innovator (Discovery Learning, Change Style Indicator). I want to revisit these three different approaches, and look at how “the fear of doing things differently” plays out in each change style.

The Conservers prefer current circumstances over the unknown. He/she is attracted to continuous improvement that is gradual and incremental. A Conserver buys into doing things differently as long it represents preserving the existing structure, and only considers minor changes to resources such as people, technology, knowledge and capital.

Conservers can be found in or attracted to particular organizational cultures. A perfect environment might be one where 1 + 1 = 2. In this scenario resources are added together to produce a consistent and stable result. These organizations are often highly regulated or lack competition such as government agencies. In this circumstance, advocating or initiating changes could result in negative consequences such as being labeled a “trouble maker,” exclusion and alienation from others, loss of promotion or opportunities, and even, job elimination or termination.

Conservers frequently view other types as impulsive, wanting change for the sake of change or reckless (rejecting the need for testing and verification). Their fear has been fueled over the years from the existence and consequences of “groupthink.” Conservers could cite this fear as the rationale for more controlled and slower changes, and a perfect reason for delaying the need to do things differently. What do we mean by groupthink?

While William Whyte, Jr. coined the term, “Groupthink” in 1952 in Fortune magazine, Irving Janis, a research psychologist, in 1971, defined it as “…the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.” Conservers would cite historic tragic mistakes such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (1941), The Bay of Pigs invasion (1961), Vietnam War, Watergate scandal and even more recently, Dina Badie argues that the invasion of Iraq by the United States, were all driven by groupthink. Some studies suggest that groupthink can be found in decision making in many facets of our world from economics (collapse of Swissair and UK Bank Northern Rock), politics, and even, sports (MLUA mass resignation in 1999). In fact, according to Wikipedia, more than twenty major studies focusing on some aspect or application of groupthink have been published since the beginning of 2010. The danger of groupthink and mistakes in decision making can easily promote this “fear of doing things differently,” particularly when failure results in serious consequences. Check out our podcast at the end of this blog to see if your group or team is in danger of groupthink and what to do about it.

In the middle of the spectrum, we have the Pragmatists. They advocate for doing things differently if the current circumstances warrant change, regardless of the impact on the existing structure. They explore change in an open and objective manner and seek to make improvements that can immediately be applied to a particular situation or process. Pragmatists are open to doing things differently as long as they have a clear implementation plan and achieve real, concrete results. The amount of their support may be determined by the level of trust they have that (1) it will actually happen and (2) that those responsible are competent and committed enough for it to be successful. Pragmatists can be perceived by the other types as compromising, mediating, indecisive, easily influenced and noncommittal. They, too, can have a true blind spot if the urgency of the present situation keeps them from focusing on the future negative consequences of the decision or if they fail to learn from the mistakes of the past. Pragmatists lean either towards the Conserver side or the Originator end of the spectrum. In groups or teams, pragmatists may find themselves spending more time on mediation between the other two types, then than creating or addressing change.

On the far right of the continuum are our Originators. They prefer a fast and radical approach to change. They initiate change or continuously challenge the existing structure, constantly re-engineering on all possible fronts. Originators show no fear of doing things differently. They believe in focusing on the task at hand and getting it done. They poke the box and look for alternatives that have not even been discovered yet. They discard any fear of failure or fear of success and believe that, in the majority of circumstances, there is no harm in failure. In fact, failure gets you closer to success.

One might suggest that Seth Godin, author of Poke the Box is an Originator. He stresses that we need to “go from no to yes;” “start something, initiate, ship – go, go, go.” Godin encourages each one of us to start something “important, frightening and new.” In fact, he suggests that the “fear of doing things differently” is one built from years of conformity and mediocrity. Organizations often reward the person who is “not wrong” and do not reward the person who “tries or starts something.” Our education system rewards the “right answer,” not the person who comes close, challenges or creates something new. I’ll never forget my final exam in Introduction to Macro-economics, freshman year at Wellesley College. Professor Marshall Goldman gave us a final with questions that we didn’t have the knowledge to answer. Basically, we wouldn’t get it right. He graded our answers based on how close we could come to the answer. I have never forgotten that experience. I don’t have a clue what grade I got on the final. However, the challenge of that exam is what led me to continue to take courses and eventually choose Economics as one of my major areas of study at Wellesley. It drove my curiosity and a desire to learn more.

Godin believes that the focus needs to be on hard work and “not the fear that comes from doing the work.” The last quote in his book by Siddhartha Gautama says it all; “There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth. Not going all the way and not starting.”

MSN Money’s article “5 Huge Just-Missed-It Business Ideas” by Joe Mont might agree with Godin. He uncovers the fortunes lost by such companies as ABC, when they missed the opportunity to host Bill Cosby’s sitcom which eventually went to NBC, or Mars that passed up the chance to have M&Ms as the candy featured in the movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Yahoo who backed away from the one billion dollar deal in 2006 to buy Facebook and later lost that deal.

These are three approaches to doing things differently, their strengths and weaknesses. So, how would you describe your dominant preference for change? What about your staff or co-workers? What about your leadership or cross-functional teams? What type does your organization reward or encourage? Which one is best for good decision-making?

What happens if you find you or your group/team is surrounded by predominantly one style? How do you encourage balance or alternative viewpoints? How do you avoid groupthink and its perils, yet reap the benefits of fast decision making and seize opportunities?

Download this podcast for some suggestions for avoiding groupthink and overcoming the “Fear of Doing Things Differently.”


  • Very nice, insightful and inspirational. While I agree that all of us fall into one of the categories you’ve mentioned, it isn’t surely just our psychological make up that drives us towards success. There is a certain element of luck involved as well. But that said, even luck favours those who try. Well put once again.

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