In the 1950s, it was a common practice to X-ray pregnant women to determine the position of their babies. At the time, low doses of X-ray were considered harmless and doctors wouldn’t think twice about using X-ray on their patients.
When Dr. Alice Stewart discovered that the children of mothers who had an X-ray were almost twice as likely to suffer from leukemia, she raised the alarm. But instead of due concern, her findings were met with outrage by doctors and the nuclear industry. Dr. Stewart experienced difficulties obtaining financing for her studies and was unable to influence her industry for decades. But by the mid-1970s, other scientists had duplicated her findings on prenatal X-rays, and finally, the practice ended.
The reality is that most of us secretly resent contrarians. They make us feel uncomfortable — especially when they point out that the way we’ve been doing things was wrong. Our negative reaction to nonconformists is not surprising, given how our brains are wired.
We are all born with an innate human need to seek harmony, to fit in, and to belong. We build our sense of identity, meaning, and belonging on a narrative about what people like us do. As Seth Godin said in our recent conversation on the CultureLab podcast, “people like us” are our modern tribe. And the moment we start identifying with a tribe is also the moment we adopt its worldview, beliefs, norms, and practices — in short, the tribe’s culture.
How a “strong” culture kills innovation
Many organizations inadvertently stifle innovation and it’s surprising how little it takes to crush their employees’ innovative spirit.
On the surface, it might seem that constraining human creativity would be a lot like trying to keep a group of fleas in a jar with no lid — virtually impossible. After all, human beings are inherently creative. We love crossing boundaries and exploring the unknown. We are born with the capacity to imagine things, find surprising connections, come up with ideas, and make something out of nothing. Play and creativity are one of the strongest drivers of human behavior. So what goes wrong in our organizations today?
Let’s take the group of fleas in a jar as an example of what happens to our drive to innovate and explore at work. Without the lid, the fleas will jump out of the…