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Conformance Principle


Principles > Conformance Principle

Principle | How it works | So what?


We are driven to conform to rules.

How it works

In any social group there are rules for how we should behave in general and particular situations. These appear in various ways, including:

  • Social norms

  • Company policies

  • Club rules

  • National laws

  • Religious commandments

  • Professional ethics

  • Personal values

Rules may or may not be written. The strictness of the rules are reflected in how they are policed and in the severity of punishment for those who transgress them.

Below are common rules that may be found in many different situations.

Obeying authority

Many organizations are organized as hierarchies, with managers and subordinates (or at least superiors and inferiors). A basic exchange when being admitted to a group is that you will obey those in positions of authority, higher up the tree than you. Authority can be formal, but there are also other forms of power, such as where there are experts whose knowledge is to be respected.

Trusting and helping

A common rule is that we should trust and help others in the same group. This reduces transaction cost and increases the benefits of belonging to the group. A  particular element of this is that those who are vulnerable (typically children, disabled and elderly) should be given significant help.

Sometimes rules allow for harming others, such as in war. Businesses also often focus so much on individual performance that people are effectively encouraged to compete with others within the same business and team.


Another common rule which has to be obeyed is that members should not 'rock the boat' in saying what they think if that thought would disturb the harmony of the group, perhaps embarrassing some individuals.

This rule can lead to significant dysfunction where most people know things are badly wrong, yet nobody says anything about the situation.

Conflicting rules

When we belong to several different groups, there can be different rules for the same situation and other contexts where we have to choose which rule to obey. For such times we develop our own hierarchy of obedience, for example where gang members or people in religious groups obey their local rules above national laws.

Upholding rules

A common rule is that all members are responsible for ensuring rules are obeyed. This means if you see someone breaking the rules, you must act, either to correct them or to report them to a person in authority. This rule is self-supporting, in that you can also be prosecuted for not obeying the rule that you must uphold the rules. The result is that everyone is, in effect, a police officer (and perhaps judge and jury also).

Cultural variations

Not everybody obeys rules and different culture have different approaches. In particular Trompenaars' and Hampden-Turner's cultural factors include a scale of how strictly people follow rules, from 'rules must be followed in all cases' (universalism) as opposed to 'it depends on the situation' (particularism). This variation can be seen across cultures, where America and Northern Europe are more universalist, while Southern Europe and some countries in the Far East tend more towards particularism.

So what?

You can use the conformance principle by either directing people to follow rules or by taking control of the rules themselves and changing them to suit your purpose. This may be helped if you can achieve a position of authority or expertize whereby people accept this role in relation to the rules they follow.

Where people have broken rules, the threat of exposing this transgression may be enough to persuade them.

You may also want to downplay rules that are not to your advantage, for example by saying they are not relevant or that other rules are more important.

See also

Harmony principle, Authority principle, Values, Theories about conforming, Social Norms


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