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Applying (and Resisting) Peer Influence

Scholars of various kinds long have documented the great degree to which people are influenced by similar others. Indeed, the opinions, experiences and behaviors of friends, neighbors and coworkers can provide an invaluable gold mine of persuasive resources. But even savvy executives can fail to appreciate the full power of peer influence -- or they might neglect to anticipate its unintended consequences.

Consider, for example, managers who are responsible for shaping or enforcing policy within an organization. They will frequently call attention to a problem behavior, such as supply room theft, by depicting it as regrettably frequent. Although such admonitions might be well-intentioned, the communicators have missed something critically important: Within the lament of "Look at all the people who are doing this undesirable thing" lurks the powerful and undercutting disclosure "Look at all the people who are doing it." And in trying to alert people to the growing occurrence of a problem -- which could be anything from expense account padding to safety violations -- managers can inadvertently make it worse. After the Internal Revenue Service announced that it was going to strengthen the penalties for tax evasion because so many citizens were cheating on their returns, tax fraud actually increased in the following year.

But that's not the only type of mistake that managers regularly make. Indeed, a more subtle problem occurs when they fail to recognize how peer influence is affecting their own decisions. Such situations can be particularly dangerous, leading people to do exactly what they shouldn't, all because they inadvertently have listened to the wrong voices. Thus, when trying to solve a problem, managers should resist the tendency (and the conventional wisdom) to start by casting the widest net possible and then later discounting information that isn't relevant. The potential pitfall of that approach is that it inserts the filtering process too late, after any irrelevant data might have already had a subconscious impact on a person's decision making.
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