Non-conformists as change agents


ProPublica, the non-profit public interest news organization, recently did a neat little feature on Dr. Adam Grant’s (U.Penn/Wharton) new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (2016). Here’s the lede by Cynthia Gordy:

In his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant examines the circumstances that give rise to truly original thinkers and groundbreaking ideas. Throughout Originals, the Wharton School of Business professor shares stories from the fields of business, politics and sports, and his chapter exploring the psychology of speaking truth to power – whether it be federal whistleblowers, or a middle-level employee with an innovative idea – holds several lessons for investigative journalists and the people on which they report.

The feature includes a podcast with Dr. Grant interviewed by ProPublica reporter David Epstein. Here are some of the highlights:

  • On lower-level workers facing backlash for making suggestions: “People often confuse power and status, but power is about being able to influence others. . . . You see a really strong backlash when people try to assert their authority when they haven’t yet earned respect.”
  • On whistleblowers using internal channels: “We need much better internal channels that make it safe for people to blow the whistle. One of the most important steps that you can take is to model openness to that kind of information, and I think that means whistleblowers sometimes need to be called out and recognized for having the courage to speak even if they end up being wrong.”
  • On advocating for change internally vs. externally: “This is a tightrope walk. If you refuse to conform at all and you don’t buy into the system, it’s really hard to get taken seriously. . . . On the other hand, if you adapt too much to the world, then you never change it.”


Okay folks, it’s impossible for me to be objective on this topic. I naturally identify with the role of non-conformist and have done so for as long as I can remember. In years past, this role was all too often accompanied by attitudinal rebelliousness. I am not completely free from such instincts, but I think I am much more constructive and mature about it than I was before.

Grant’s characterization of the “tightrope walk” specially resonates with me. It overlaps with the idea of what author and coach Judi Neal calls the “edgewalker,” an individual who builds bridges, works at the boundaries and soft edges, and operates in a visionary way.

Of course, it’s not all about starry-eyed idealism. As Grant’s work suggests, non-conformists can pay a price for being out front, with ridicule, pushback, and retaliation being among the costs. For this reason and others, I’m looking forward to spending some time with his book. I hope it will yield some lessons on how to be an “Original” as smartly, safely, and effectively as possible.


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4 responses

  1. I can see this very clearly. When I began with the government it was because I wanted to change it and make it more responsive to the people it serves. After being involved in protests during the ’60’s I saw how impossible it was to make change from outside an organization. I thought it was more possible from the inside. Ironically, it was finally by being a union officer that I was really able to make positive changes. As a supervisor I was told the first rule was “don’t rock the boat”. As an employee I got pats on the head saying it isn’t your problem to deal with so I could only impact the people I dealt directly with. As a union person I was inside the organization but with a very different perspective. The members wanted to do their jobs well and without management hassles. The union accomplished that. In fact, speaking truth to power was an essential part of the job.

  2. Shared via LinkedIn. I have been a non-conformist all my life. My job is to be covertly seditious, moving culture slowly toward the light. I will positively affect each person I work with, as covertly as possible.

    Love your blogs, Dr. Yamada.

  3. I really like the term “edgewalker”! I have struggled with having to replace my identity as a nurse (working in community mental health) since I chose to relinquish the identity of someone it is acceptable to abuse (though that was never in any job description)…and this just might be it!

    I always interpreted part of my job as to be “an individual who builds bridges, works at the boundaries and soft edges, and operates in a visionary way.” That was the part that resonated to my core.

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