What is the price of conformity?

Last week, talking with my web designer about my professional platform and the choice of a template for the website I had a strong reaction. When I was advised to choose a professional theme a sense of rebellion came up into my chest. I slept on it before taking any decision and wrote this lines as I woke up. I was triggered by the request to conform to a model, to the views of others of what looks professional and what does not. I already have a personal website, this one, which was created when I gave my TEDx talk in May. That day I stood on stage and declared my manifesto in lyrical verses as corporate executive woman. I told out loud to the TEDX audience what my inner intuition said to me one night under the blue sky of Montana.

“…You are not a business woman

You are not a woman in business

You are a woman whose business

Needs to become

Working in a new way…”

This new way focuses on integration and inclusion. It is the antithesis of conformity. Throughout our lives we are taught to conform with the illusion of being part of a crowd. There are obvious false benefit linked to conforming to social rules like how to dress or how to act. Growing up, while we are still understanding and making a sense of our identity, it is a relief to feel accepted and part of a majority. The pressure only grows as we grow up and enter the workplace. If we then have ambitions to climb the organisation latter the parts we have to carve out to conform and be admitted in a circle are huge.

Organisations ask their employees, consciously and unconsciously, to conform by adopting a dress code, by sponsoring to model the behaviour of others, by banning emotions from the boardroom. Conformity has a high price for individuals, businesses and the entire society. I am not stating to abandon all sort of rules. Society needs organisation and rules to function, however where is the balance? It feels like the needle is too far out of balance.

The real question we should ask is if in name of conformity we are sacrificing authenticity. If conformity conflicts with our belief and preferences we are out of balance. It requires overcoming a lot of resistance to exit the cycle of conformity as we all need to be validated, accepted, acknowledged. We apparently find this validation more frequently or easily into sticking to the norms rather then being a non-conformist. We are trained to walk the usual path, to weigh more the negative consequences and discomfort rather than the gain. Hence, we have a tendency to maintain the status quo.

Look around to see the examples of this behaviour. Starting from always driving or walking the usual path to work, to following a dress code or a latest fashion trend that makes us apparently acceptable and invisible, to choosing a website theme that looks professional.

Conformity decreases our engagement at work and in life, reduces our productivity as it does not provide variety and kills innovation as it is almost impossible to think new while attempting to conform. To name a few non conformist who changed forever how we think about certain things: Nietzsche, Carl Marx, Salvador Dali, Virginia Wolf…what these people inspire in you?

They instill in me the courage to keep on a path of authenticity and integration. This path might be lonely for a while. I believe that if we want to live in a more inclusive world the path is not the one to create more rules for everybody to be equal rather the one to rebelling to the stereotypes and norms that create fragmentation of self.

If you follow me or read other articles I have written you already know that the question is how can we be more inclusive of others when we exclude parts of ourselves to conform? We are responsible for becoming aware and for taking responsibility for ourselves by choosing our integrity, by having the courage to bring to light our whole self.

Let me tell you a story of a few years ago. It was the winter of 2013 when with a group of girlfriends we went to a party in costume. It was a circus of music and passion, as the event organiser defined it, screaming out from within. There was a specific dress code to attend the event which certain might consider a bit extreme and certainly not adequate to a leader especially if the leader is a woman.

The night was as promised an explosion of music, very sensorial and sensual experience. On my way back home I was stopped for a usual control on the Italian streets by the police. I was not driving fast nor I had been drinking, so I was relaxed because I knew I had not broken any law. I pulled down the window of my very expensive German car, with a relaxed smile. When the two policemen doing their job in a boring cold night saw at the driving seat of this expensive car a young lady with heavy make up and a bizarre costume I could see judgement on their faces.

Ok, their job is to judge situations, point taken and yet does an appearance not conforming to their idea of how somebody driving such a car should look like, justify the way I was treated? After handing to them my Italian ID where my place of birth is visible I was asked if I was Italian, if I spoke Italian and if I had the permit to be in Italy just because my name is not of Italian origins.

All the answers were under their eyes on a piece of authentic document released by the official authorities. Then they assumed I was probably an escort and asked if the car was mine. I was questioned why was I dressed that way, not even for a moment thinking that a party in costume is not that bizarre. And the best had yet to arrived.

When I was asked what was my profession they did not believe me. They did not believe I was an executive at a major global company. My appearance was not conforming to their image of someone in a leadership position. I was not a man. I was not old. I was not ugly. I actually had a very enjoyable party, I had played and not taken myself too seriously. I stood in the cold night in the middle of the street because the appearance did not match their idea of reality.

When I told this story I wasn’t met by sympathy or empathy for something that was rather discriminatory, judgemental and offensive. I was reminded that a young single woman in my role should have paid more attention to her image. I guess I was guilty for not conforming to what everybody around me was expecting. It was not relevant that I did not brake any law or committed any unethical or immoral act. The matter was I had not behaved according to the norms.

This story came back to my mind when I was asked to choose the theme of my web-platform in a way to conform to somebody else definition of professional.

I am choosing to keep my website as it is right now against the pressure for adopting one with a theme that is more widely accepted. On the current theme there are all the facets I bring to the table. It might not conform to the view of others, might not fit in one single box. On it there is poetry, science, leadership. It tells my story at this moment in life. The story of a woman entrepreneur bringing to the table a diverse set of skills and facets. A woman who has not conformed to the norm of what a leader should look like that night in Italy and who is not conforming today. It feels lonely at times and I chose to remain loyal to my mission and integrity of voice.

I am asking you to stand up against conformity and feel uncomfortable walking the path of anti-conformism. A path that might need to be walked solo till you meet others on your same mission or who are inspired by your courage. There is room for great diversity and no need to make comparison that flatten reality. We can still applaud others and choose our own way. The difference between choosing to conform or choosing our unique way is that only one will make us feel complete.