Peer power

2012 June 01 | :

They influence what we buy and help us make sense of our work environment. Leo J. Bottary explores how to tap into the potency of our peers.

Our parents understood the power of peer influence.  It’s why they were always so inquisitive about our friends and classmates.  They realized that even in an ideal parent-child relationship, peers wielded enormous power.  During my elementary school years, I recall several parental exhortations that addressed this dynamic: "If Jimmy jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?"  I’m guessing you may have heard that (or some version of it) when you were a kid as well.   And while you may not have jumped off the bridge, it’s likely you were led astray a time or two.  Or on the positive side, you studied more and worked harder because of a friend who led by example.

Turns out, our parents are still right.  In fact, the persuasive power of peer groups of all ages in today’s interconnected world is even more pervasive than ever.  In this age of social media, we’re far less inclined to trust institutional experts; instead, we trust the opinions and experiences of peers we’ve never met (peers as in fellow consumers, readers, car buyers, etc.). 

We trust these online "peers," with whom we have something temporarily in common, with everything from book recommendations and product reviews to which college we should attend and what car we should buy.  This dynamic was in part responsible for "You" (or "Us" I suppose) to have been named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006.  If this is not on your resume by the way, I think you’re leaving out a pretty big accomplishment!

Making sense of things

In the offline world, and in the office more specifically, we rely on our peers to make sense of our environment and decipher what’s going on in the heads of our leaders.  Peer influence often determines whether employees choose to follow their leaders or just sit back and wait until the latest, greatest change initiative runs its course and gives way to either a new idea or a new leadership team.  It’s a big reason why roughly 60-80% of strategic/organizational change initiatives fail.

The MIT Sloan Management Review (Winter 2008) includes an article by Griskevicius, Cialdini and Goldstein titled, Applying (and Resisting) Peer Influence.  It not only inspired memories from my past and reminded me of the significance of TIME’s unconventional Person of the Year selection, but also offered convincing evidence of how we are (unwittingly) influenced by our peers and how leaders who choose to understand this dynamic more deeply can leverage it both inside and outside their organizations.

There was one experiment I found particularly fascinating. It involved a test of three different messages left on cards in hotel rooms requesting that guests consider reusing their towels.  Quoting from the article, "One card said HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT, followed by information stressing the respect for nature.  A different card stated PARTNER WITH US TO HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT, followed by information urging guests to cooperate with the hotel in preserving the environment.  A third card, using an appeal based on peer influence, said JOIN YOUR FELLOW GUESTS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT, followed by information that said a majority of hotel guests reuse their towels.  The outcome? Compared with the first two messages, the peer influence appeal resulted in a 34% increase in towel reuse."

Simple advice

Since the likelihood of being influenced by peers increases during times of uncertainty, the authors’ advice to leaders was simple: 1) When communicating a change initiative, focus more on horizontal communication than vertical.  One positive exposure of the message from a peer can have more impact than multiple exposures of the same message from a supervisor.  2) "When working to ensure that the voices of supportive employees will be heard, managers often select those who are the most articulate when they should instead favor those who are the most similar in circumstances to the individuals who are still unconvinced. So if the resistance to an initiative is strongest among employees with the longest tenures, then a fellow old-timer who has genuinely embraced the change could be a better advocate than someone who might be more eloquent but has only recently come on board."

Our peers have been influencing our thoughts and actions since our moms and dads were asking those intrusive questions all those years ago.  Leaders and communication pros should start asking themselves about how they can leverage the persuasive power of peers inside their organizations and among their other various stakeholder groups. 

Trying to create organizational alignment from the top down is what Tom Rath might call "taking the path of most resistance."   And if you think you can persuade your customers without enlisting the help of their peers, think again.    If you’re still not convinced, I suggest talking to your peers.   If that doesn’t do it, nothing will.