The Most Surprising Reason People Change

illustration of a diverse crowd of people

Authored by

NLI Staff
Although most people would never admit to following the crowd, social norms are a surprisingly powerful impetus for behavior change.

Most of us like to think we’re pretty independent and uneasily swayed by the notion that “everybody else is doing it.” Yet have you ever felt compelled to drop a dollar in a street musician’s guitar case when you see the person in front of you do so? After all, you don’t want people to think you’re a penny pincher. Or how about when it’s been one of those days when you don’t feel like getting out of your PJs before noon, so you decide to turn your camera off for the Zoom meeting — but then see everyone else has theirs on? Do you do a quick wardrobe change so nobody can accuse you of not fully participating?

To maintain harmony and avoid being excluded from a group, people often conform with behaviors accepted by the majority. These “unwritten rules,” or social norms, are surprisingly powerful motivators of behavioral change. But social norms can be either positive or negative, and your workplace probably has a mixture of both. Positive norms might include things like giving shoutouts to team members or shunning micromanagement, whereas negative ones could be a tendency to gossip or distrust company leadership. A company’s social norms are a big part of its culture through shared everyday habits, so it’s important to understand where they come from, why they’re so powerful, and how they’re best used.

Many norms are passed down by tradition. Maybe you’ve heard a colleague say, “That’s the way we’ve always done things.” But social norms aren’t set in stone, and they can change for a variety of reasons, including new information, changes in social structure, or role modeling by leaders or charismatic employees. During the pandemic, for example, handshakes fell out of favor, and it remains to be seen whether this enduring social norm will stage a comeback, or something like the elbow bump will replace it.

What’s more, research indicates that norms have a powerful impact on our behavior, even when we’re not consciously aware of their influence. In one study, people reduced their household energy consumption when presented with a message such as, “99% of people in your community reported turning off unnecessary lights to save energy.” Surprisingly, this intervention was more effective than messages highlighting cost savings for the consumer, environmental protection, or social responsibility. However, in subsequent surveys, participants rated the information on what their neighbors were doing as the least motivating, indicating that the persuasive power of social norms is often underappreciated.

There are three major reasons people conform with social norms. The first is to make better-informed decisions. Maybe you only skim that non-disclosure agreement your new company has you sign because you figure your coworkers wouldn’t have signed it if it was unfair. People assume that others have already evaluated options and identified the most beneficial action, which is an example of expedience bias — the desire to act quickly rather than take the necessary time to fully understand a situation. The second reason people conform is to avoid social sanctions. If employees learn that most of their peers are recycling, for example, they might adopt this practice for appearance’s sake, regardless of if they actually believe in the value of recycling, because they don’t want to risk the judgment of their co-workers. The third major reason people obey norms is to identify with a social group. Research shows people will conform with even arbitrary social norms if it reinforces their identity as a member of an in-group.

Neuroscientists are only beginning to understand why social norms are so compelling. Electrophysiological studies of the brain indicate that, when we realize we’re in conflict with a social norm, a cascade of neuronal responses is triggered — essentially an “error signal” that makes us want to change our behavior to match that of others. This activity occurs in the same area of the brain ­— the posterior medial frontal cortex — that’s involved in evaluating our performance and potential rewards. Violating a social norm causes an electrical response in the brain that’s similar to what happens when we receive negative feedback, so it’s no wonder that we want to change.

Given the power of social norms, it makes sense for leaders to harness them to help create workplace change in weeks, not years. Here are some ways to do that:

Information, please.

By being transparent and discussing the reasons why employees should adopt a particular behavior, leaders can lay the informational foundation for a norm. But in addition to the facts, employees need to hear that a majority of their peers are adopting a behavior. For example, a company that wants to encourage workplace recycling could communicate that, “88% of your coworkers have signed up for recycling day next Tuesday.”

Create a sense of belonging.

In-groups and out-groups in the workplace often have their own sets of social norms, which can be divisive and counterproductive. By encouraging unity in shared goals, leaders can strive to make every employee a member of the in-group.

It’s also important to remember that if you’re not actively including people, you’re probably excluding them. If members of an office in-group decide to start wearing red shirts on Fridays to encourage team spirit, but don’t communicate this to other employees, they could feel excluded – compared to if they reached out to all coworkers and said, “We’d love it if you’d join us.”

Value reciprocity.

A recent study found that people are more likely to change their mind to conform if they feel a reciprocal relationship with the person presenting the social norm. For example, if leaders have been receptive to employees’ ideas in the past, the employees will be more likely to change their minds and behavior to conform with social norms encouraged by leaders.

Model what good looks like.

Although social norms can come from anyone, it’s important for leaders to model the behaviors they want to see in their employees. If employees notice the majority of managers are adopting a certain practice, they’ll be more likely to do so. If, on the other hand, managers don’t “practice what they preach,” workers will view a particular behavior as unimportant.

Social norms are powerful influences on our behavior, even when we don’t realize it. By forming and reinforcing positive ones, leaders can create a healthier, thriving workplace. And since social norms already drive behaviors in your company, why not tap into their productive powers?

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