Positive Peer Pressure

People carry an unconscious fear of exclusion. Most organizations are governed by negative peer pressure. A few organizations are transformed and positive peer pressure replaces negative peer pressure. At that moment performance climbs.

We were in a course for executives. We reviewed a video clip that showed a man of transformational perspective committing to do something in an organization that had not been done before. The people in the scene, his colleagues, became resistant and acted out. We led a discussion of what the participants saw in the video clip. The participants very much noticed the resistance in the scene. What they did not see, were the patterns within the resistance.

First the people in the scene used humor to discourage the initiative. As they did, they watched the face of the committed man. It did not change. So the group naturally moved to the next level. They declared a long list of rational/bureaucratic arguments about why the change could not happen. The face still did not change. So the group naturally moved to the next level. They expressed anger. They questioned the morality of the man and began to define him as being of evil intent.

This is a sequence of conflict management. The final step is what a country does just before it goes to war. The people of the country begin to define the enemy as nonhuman. To find the capacity to kill or do terrible things to other humans we have to first objectify them, see them as not human. The fearful and angry group in the video scene is preparing to go to war and their enemy is rapidly becoming an object.

Taking the group through this analysis had a big impact. The participants began to see their previous experiences in a new way. They could all see that we all live with an unconscious fear of being excluded.

After a break one of the participants approached us. She said she was particularly moved by the discussion. She could suddenly see that there is something basic in each of us that fears failure, embarrassment, and particularly exclusion.   Exclusion is as fearful as death because it is social death. To be excluded is to be outside the herd and to survive we must be members of the herd. This very basic fear is operating in us all the time. This unconscious anxiety governs our behavior and we do not know it.

We shared with her that a horse uses this fear to discipline a colt. If the colt misbehaves, the mother positions herself between the colt and the center of the herd. She keeps moving the colt until the colt is outside the herd. The instinctual fear of being excluded from the collective leads the colt to try to get back in but the mother keeps cutting the colt off. Finally the colt physically signals surrender. The lesson has been learned. The mother then lets the colt back in.

In organizations individuals and groups naturally use this same method to discipline people and control their behavior. It is called negative peer pressure. If someone does something that violates the expectations of the group the group begins the dance of exclusion. At the blue collar level, this is called the rate buster phenomenon. If you produce 40 widgets your first day on the job and the average in the group is 20 widgets, within a few days you also are producing 20 widgets. The group pulls you down to the average. The phenomenon is not limited to the blue collar world, it is universal.

There is also a very important inversion of the process. It is positive peer pressure. We enter many organizations where there is a formal vision. “We make quality cars.” Then we observe the employees doing things like throwing a wrench into a machine. The informal system is not aligned with the formal purpose. Negative peer pressure drives destructive behavior.

Sometimes we enter a very different kind of an organization. A transformation has taken place. There is a higher purpose and the people are aligned with the purpose. In such an organization we find positive peer pressure. The people are sacrificing for the common good and they expect all their peers to sacrifice for the common good.

In such an organization high performance seems to occur magically. Why? When trust and collaboration go up, transaction costs go down. This shift is new music and the organization moves into a new dance. The new dance is joyful and everyone wants to be a part.

Because the people are transformed, the leader who brought the transformation is also transformed. He or she never has to play the role of police officer because the employees now play that role. He or she looks upon the people with respect and treats them with awe. Every day he or she sees new potential in the people and in the organization. They trust the leader and desire to realize their potential.   The leader becomes a better leader because the people are becoming better people because the leader is becoming a better leader.


When have I observed the power of exclusion?

When have I observed the power of positive peer pressure?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



2 thoughts on “Positive Peer Pressure

  1. A couple of thoughts…

    1) The comment about dehumanizing in war is an extreme example of the “us vs. them” phenomenon we make unconsciously (or consciously) all the time as humans, even in the midst of ordinary and minor episodes in life. When someone cuts us off in grocery or traffic. When we see someone unfamiliar in our neighborhood. Etc. It’s a way of coping psychologically to things that don’t fit into our mental models or boxes. Our political choices and rivalries reflect this, too.

    2) The book “Tribal Leadership” (King, et. al.) does a nice job of characterizing how teams and groups can evolve over time from a “rate buster” mentality to championship mentality. We are not fixed in rate buster – we can move on – and of course teams do this all the time. This is what we strive and aspire to in high performance organizations. However, it is a choice – a commitment. And leaders must have the vision, shape consensus towards the dream, and support the team in its struggle to achieve its share aspiration.

    Thanks, Bob!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s