The secret power of social norms
  • leadership
  • Blog post

The secret power of social norms

With all our access to databases, analytics, performance metrics, testing, and monitoring, it’s easy to forget that most employees experience their workplaces as social settings, for better or worse. The same people show up every day (for the most part) and interact as people. True, they’re not playing shuffleboard or bridge or beer pong, but the unwritten rules of culture and courtesy — social norms — apply at work as much as they do anywhere else. Perhaps even more so, because getting kicked out of this club means losing a paycheck.

It’s easy to forget that, and to imagine that all there is to managing people are things like SMART Goals and performance reviews. But on a day-to-day basis, managers aren’t interacting with measurable economic units. They’re interacting with people. And the best managers understand how to derive peak performance from their teams using social interactions.

Some people never get flu shots

Before we get into what exactly it looks like to manage people according to social norms, consider this research.

A study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored the question of what it would take to convince people to get flu shots.

The researchers split study participants into two groups. Group A read a newspaper article claiming that most people get flu shots. Group B read a newspaper article claiming that most people do NOT get flu shots.

Next, participants in each group read one of two articles. Either they read an article that emphasized the positive effects of getting a flu shot (e.g., protects self and others against infection), or they read an article that emphasized the negative impact on others of NOT getting a flu shot (e.g., irresponsibly exposes others to infection).

So who was most persuaded to get a flu shot? By far, it was the members of Group A who read the article about the negative impacts of not getting a flu shot. That’s because this group had been primed to see getting a flu shot as a social norm, and were far more sensitive to the high social cost of failing to meet that norm.

What’s going on?

Managers try any number of tricks to try and get behavior change to happen: demands, threats, incentives, micromanaging, etc. But those attempts ultimately fail because employees’ motivation to change behavior is still external. However, by emphasizing social norms, managers gain a shortcut to one of the most powerful internal motivations people have: Group membership. When failure to change behavior signals membership in an “out-group,” people hurry to adapt their behavior to the “in-group.”

So, how can you adapt this knowledge to your work as a manager? By reminding your people of, and holding them accountable for, social norms.

Here’s a simple example: You can’t get your team to turn in their timesheets by the deadline. Start by acknowledging and thanking the folks who do, thus establishing the social norm. Then, point out that failing to turn in a timesheet by the due date means the accounting team has to work late.

Or, imagine you’ve got two high-value employees who are constantly bickering with each other, gossiping, and undercutting each other. It appears there’s no conflict to resolve. It’s just a case of clashing personalities, and it’s damaging morale and productivity. You’d address each of them, and establish the norm that conflict is unavoidable, but engaging in personal attacks or rumor mongering is unacceptable. You hold them accountable for their behavior, and for upholding the norms of the workplace. Only then do you look into whether there’s an underlying conflict that needs resolution.

Are we just talking about good manners?

It’s easy to dismiss managing by social norms as fretting about etiquette. But as we’ve seen, the workplace is a social setting and in social settings, manners are really, really important. Rudeness has consequences. One recent study even showed that rudeness directly damaged the “procedural performance” of a neonatal ICU team. Numerous other studies have shown similar effects on the productivity and output project teams.

Thankfully, most people really, really don’t want to be rude. It means they’re on the outside of a social norm, which is tantamount to being outside the social group itself. So don’t be afraid to use social norms as a way to change behavior. It’s one of the most powerful tools you’ve got.

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