Remember The Emperor’s New Clothes story? No-one daring to call-out the obvious.

Ellen was desperate to challenge the proposals, but how could she?
Here, red10 ‘s Hazel Howard suggests how the psychology of ‘social proof’ can work for us, even when it appears to be working against us.

How easy it is to go with the crowd

As humans, we tend to see an action as the right thing to do when others are doing the same.

This can serve us well on the most part.

We learn how to conduct ourselves at work, how to respond to others, how to behave in meetings, how to respond when asked by someone more senior our opinions, etc. We learn not to rock the boat, or cause disruptions. We like to keep things steady.

In life, one thing most humans enjoy is certainty. To gain certainty is to view what others are doing. By observing and sticking to these rules, we are displaying what psychologist Professor Cialdini calls ‘Social Proof’; we observe others and that becomes the ‘accepted’ behaviour for us.

Let’s look at some experiments that demonstrate how ‘Social Proof’ works…

The psychologist Bandura, researched this approach to help people eliminate undesirable behaviours (namely phobias).

Bandura’s study focused on nursery school aged children, who were terrified of dogs.

The children were asked to watch a little boy playing happily with a dog for 20 minutes a day. After only four days, 67% of them were willing to climb into a playpen and play with a dog and remain happy and engaged with the dog while everyone left the room. One month later the improvement had not only remained, it had, if anything, strengthened.

The study was repeated using film clips instead of watching it first-hand – this had the same effect.

The principle of ‘Social Proof’ works best when the proof is provided by lots of people.

O’Connor, another psychologist, looked at socially withdrawn children and showed them a film of some social activity. They then actively joined the group and continued to not only be part of it, but in some follow-up study (6 weeks later) showed to be leading it.

Why is ‘Social Proof’ important to us and to organisations?

In organisations, the cultural ‘norm’ is how everyone tends to behave, and this becomes acceptable, the Social Proof that it works – described really well in the research paper “That’s the Way We Do Things Around Here

When organisations want to change the culture, change the Social Proof – start acknowledging, encouraging and rewarding different behaviours based on the strategy.

Getting Back to Our Coachee, Ellen

In Ellen’s new organisation there was a culture of compliance; one where disagreeing was not expected or accepted.

Imagine the nodding and agreeing; lots of reassurance that this is all absolutely fine. Walter Lippman however, is attributed with the quote, “When we all think alike, no one thinks very much.”

But there was a new strategy. Ellen – and new recruits like her – were brought in to change this behaviour and bring more innovation and speedier working across the organisation.

Ellen was asked to challenge the input, and to “ask forgiveness, not permission”, and the leaders were asked to respond well, creating a new norm.

They all knew: if Ellen was accepted and applauded then others will follow suit. If Ellen was reprimanded, then no one will challenge further presentations. The key would be to find a way for Ellen to role model a good way to do this in that culture.

Ellen asked if she could test her understanding of the input, listing what was being proposed and checking she’d caught the logic correctly.

Ellen then sought more information, gently testing the thinking of the senior leader. The Senior Leader welcomed this approach, graciously acknowledging the gaps in his proposition and thanking Ellen.

Through effective coaching Ellen had achieved a different outcome, and the Senior Leader had started to change the culture. Others in the room were seeing her behaviour as ‘different’ yet acceptable.

‘Social Proof’ is Just One of the Eight Ways Humans Are Hard-Wired

‘Social Proof’ is just one of eight ways that human beings are more open to be persuaded. The full list is really useful for brainstorms that help you articulate the arguments that will otherwise only persuade you.

Interested? You can read more about these eight Universal Rules here, and more about our one-to-one coaching here.