Creating a New Norm: Using Social Proof to Accelerate Change (Part One)

Scientific research argues that social norms are a necessary part of our identity and evolutionary existence - that our survival has always depended on individuals coming together to live, work, and govern. Most people, most of the time, conform to ‘the norm’ because we want to be liked and accepted. Harnessing the power of social norms, our blog series looks at the role that norms can play in shaping higher-value change management outcomes.

It’s Saturday night. You’re in a new city and hungry, so you decide to look for a restaurant to grab something to eat.

After a few minutes walking, you find two restaurants situated next door to one another. Both are a similar size, same cuisine, and have similarly priced menus. The only difference is that one of them is empty (the waiters peer longingly out of the window as you peruse the menu) whilst the other is bustling full of people, with one spare table available for you.

Which would you choose? Surely, the restaurant full of people has the tastier food? Who wants to be the only one sitting in an empty restaurant? You take the last empty table and sheepishly avoid the gaze of the peering waiters from the neighbouring restaurant.

Seeing and knowing what other people are doing is one of the greatest influences on human behaviour and decision making. Social Proof, a theory made popular by psychologist Robert Cialdini, says that we copy the behaviours of others, especially if we're similar to them (or aspire to be them) and find ourselves in an unfamiliar situation.

So, what does this mean for the world of work?

Just like our cavemen ancestors, at work we are brought together by trying to achieve a common goal. Whether it’s trying to sell a new product, or find a solution to a problem, social norms facilitate how we go about doing this. Just as most of us would rather eat in a busy restaurant than an empty one, people tend to follow what others around them are doing at work.

For example, do most people on your team take a lunch break and move away from their desks, or do they stay at their screens and eat over their keyboard? Have you noticed that the lunchtime behaviours of a few will impact what the rest of the team do? Whatever the behaviours are, your people will look around and, more likely than not, follow what they see the rest of the team doing. This can create both virtuous and vicious cycles.

Virtuous and vicious cycles can have a considerable impact on how you manage and implement the rollout of a change programme, whether that programme is deploying new technology, processes, ways of working, or a cultural shift. The success of any change initiative is usually measured by the level of engagement and subsequent action taken by people that the change is happening to. The more people interact, understand and role model the change; in essence, building and communicating the new social norm - the greater the chance you have of realising your programme’s goals and benefits.

So how can you create a ‘swell’ and build a new social norm for your change?

There is no silver bullet, but there are several strategies supported by research from psychology and behavioural science that can help you to build new norms to make your change programme a success, creating new virtuous cycles and breaking the vicious ones.

Increase visibility of the desired behaviour

For a new social norm to catch on and spread, the desired behaviour needs to be visible and easily observable. If it’s not, then how will anyone know that other people are doing it? With this in mind, try to find as many ways as possible to demonstrate or communicate that people are adopting the desired behaviour.

Let’s say that you want to reduce the consumption of paper and plastic and increase the rate of recycling to meet your organisation’s sustainability targets. One approach is to make sure that recycling bins are in convenient, easy-to-reach locations around the office that are also strategically placed to be obvious and visible to others. That way, whenever anyone uses them, the behaviour is easily observable to colleagues. For behaviours that aren’t as easily observed, you can still help to make them visible by publicly recognising and promoting the people that are doing it. For this to work, you need to make sure that you have the right channels and forums in place to increase communication and connectivity. This is particularly important for organisations spread across multiple physical locations. If you don’t build social connection across your network so that behaviours can be observed without being physically present, then disjointed and separate norms can form within your organisation.

Remove negative visual cues

Making the behaviour itself observable is not the only way to capitalise on visibility when building a new social norm. The visual cues present in people’s immediate environment are also powerful triggers when creating new virtuous cycles and breaking the vicious ones. Once again using the reduction of plastic and paper consumption as an example, one way to use visibility (or lack-of) as a way of changing behaviour is to physically remove the visual cue of plastic cups on top of the coffee machine and put them away in a hard to reach cupboard out of sight instead. By decreasing the visibility of cues that encourage the undesired behaviour, you’ll increase the visibility of the desired one!

In Part 2, we'll examine the role of timing and messaging in creating lasting social norms.