Getting Comfortable With People Who Make You Uncomfortable

weird_guy If you’re out to create something truly great, you’ll likely need to challenge some widely held — but incorrect — beliefs. Challenging conventional wisdom is much harder than most people realize, and those that do make us uncomfortable. Which is why it’s so important to learn how to identify and embrace people who see the world differently than you do.

Evolutionary Biology and Conformity

Imagine our ancient ancestors out on the savanna in search of food. Chasing a large group of hunters who were running after something out of view was probably a better survival strategy than pursuing animal tracks that may or may not have led to food. Gregory Berns argues that mankind’s propensity to follow the crowd is at least partially a result of evolutionary biology.

Such a propensity is so ingrained in human nature that we will go to ridiculous lengths in order to adjust our beliefs to those of a group, as proven in the series of conformity experiments run by Solomon Asch in the 1950s. According to Wikipedia:


In the basic Asch paradigm, the participants — the real subject and the confederates — were all seated in a classroom. They were asked a variety of questions about the lines (which line was longer than the other, which lines were the same length, etc.) The group was told to announce their answers to each question out loud and the confederates always provided their answers before the study participant. The confederates always gave the same answer as each other. They answered a few questions correctly but eventually began providing incorrect responses. In a control group, with no pressure to conform to an erroneous view, only one subject out of 35 ever gave an incorrect answer. However, when surrounded by individuals all voicing an incorrect answer, participants provided incorrect responses on a high proportion of the questions (36.8%). 75% of the participants gave an incorrect answer to at least one question.”

It’s very challenging to make decisions based on your own information and logic when everyone disagrees with your point of view. We have an urge to conform, as we learn again with each economic boom and bust. Unfortunately, as David Hirshleifer describes in “The Blind Leading the Blind:  Social Influence, Fads, and Informational Cascades,” “If there are many individuals, then…with virtual certainty a point in the chain of decisions will be reached where an individual ignores his private information and bases his decision solely upon what he sees his predecessors do.”

Weird Ideas That Work

The inspiration for the title of this post came from the book “Weird Ideas That Work,” in which Robert Sutton suggests hiring “people who make you uncomfortable.” He argues that employers typically hire people like themselves and that most interviews are more about the social fit between the candidate and interviewer rather than the candidate and the job.

So what can you do to embrace those who make you uncomfortable?

1.  Identify your heroes.

Chances are that the historical figures you hold in high esteem made those around them uncomfortable in their day. Einstein did. Gandhi did. Jefferson did. Apple’s “Think Different” campaign was as much about communicating what the company stood for to its employees as it was about selling Apple products to its customers. An organization that embraces unconventional thinkers has an unfair competitive advantage in a world governed by conformity.

2.  Adjust your hiring process to focus on what really matters.

Jeff Cordova, a former Yahoo colleague of mine, puts all engineering candidates through a code test before he determines cultural fit or the like. He literally sits down in a room with a candidate and spends a few hours coding up an application with them. At the end of the test, he has a very good idea of their software engineering skills and often asks other members of his team to drill down in a particular area of expertise. It’s only after qualifying their skills as an engineer that he allows his team to determine their “fit” within the organization.

While software engineering is relatively easy to test, you can apply a similar type of testing process for just about any role to reduce the impact of social bias in hiring.  Microsoft notoriously put candidates through case study interviews (I don’t know if they still do), as documented by William Poundstone in “How Would You Move Mount Fuji?”

Spend more time thinking about interview-based experiments that you can run on candidates to test what really matters for the role and you might find yourself hiring a different type of person.

3.  If you have a negative reaction to an idea, use the 5 Whys.

The 5 Whys is a method to get at the root cause of a problem. When you hear an idea, before you immediately respond, try to understand the underlying reason for your knee-jerk reaction. You may find that your reaction is more about protecting existing orthodoxy or the source of the idea than it is about the merits of the particular approach at hand.

4.  Consider increasing organizational diversity.

The true benefit of diversity is that it has the potential to produce better results.  Diversity along the lines of age, gender, race, religion and sexual orientation has the potential to make an organization more resilient to conformity. Different people from different backgrounds bring in different biases. And groups that have experienced greater prejudice may have a membership inoculated from group think as a matter of self-preservation — that is, when everyone hates your group, you tend to hold a differing opinion.

It’s not easy working with one of the rare people who is deeply nonconformist. But if your goal is to be innovative, to create something great and to make a difference in the world, you should be prepared to make those around you uncomfortable and recruit others who do the same to you.

Mike Speiser is a Managing Director at Sutter Hill Ventures. His thoughts on technology, economics and entrepreneurship will appear at this time every week.