Leading Change in Software Teams
Leveraging Social Proof to Influence the Influencers

Leading Change in Software Teams: Leveraging Social Proof to Influence the Influencers

The basic premise of social proof is as follows. When people are faced with situations that are full of uncertainty or ambiguity, they look around to see what others are doing, and use this as a mechanism to provide guidance for their actions. This often results in a situation of pluralistic ignorance. Pluralistic ignorance refers to the social phenomenon in which individuals guess incorrectly about a particular group's value or beliefs. It is this phenomenon that causes large groups of bystanders to ignore someone who clearly needs help.

In these situations, the bystanders are faced with an internal contradiction. Their observations of the individual who needs help tells them they should stop and offer assistance. Yet their observations of everyone else passing by indicates that this person must not need help, (otherwise somebody would have stopped and helped already). Often in these situations, as soon as one person stops to help, a large number of others will stop also.

So powerful is the phenomenon of social proof, as explained by Robert Cialdini in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition , that there are numerous documented cases where groups of people have witnessed violent crimes, yet have done nothing to try stop it. A number of studies have indicated that the victims of such crimes have a much better chance of getting help when there is only a single witness present.

One such study was conducted by psychology professors Bibb Latane and John Darley. They found that when a college student who appeared to be having an epileptic seizure was witnessed by just a single bystander, they received help 85 percent of the time. When the same college student was witnessed by five bystanders, they received help just 31 percent of the time.

Social proof is incredibly effective when trying to encourage a particular behavior from a set of individuals. Marketing and advertising often attempts to create an impression that large groups of people similar to you are already doing <something>, so you should too!

Basic Concepts of Social Proof
  • People are significantly more prone to be imitators than initiators. They often look to see what others are doing, and then just blindly "follow the crowd."
  • People are most susceptible to social proof in situations of ambiguity and uncertainty.
  • People will use the actions of others to influence their decisions, "especially if those people seem similar to them."

Practical Application in Software Development Teams

Numerous bad behaviors are perpetuated and propagated thru the principle of social proof. I have personally witnessed this phenomenon at more than one organization. One particular example was regarding the development build process. There was a period of time where the development build environment was rather unstable. During this time, there were a number of software check-ins to the repository that caused the build to fail. Initially, when these build failures first started, it was usually some environment instability that had caused the build to fail. But over a period of days, while this issue was unresolved, build failures became increasingly prevalent.

Interestingly, the build failures initially were largely related to a faulty build environment. However, the most prevalent build issues just prior to the resolution of the environment issue were not environment related. They were the result of developers getting lazy about running tests and following up on test failures prior to check-ins.

Social Proof Gone Bad

It had became socially acceptable to break the build! Even after the environment instability was resolved, there was a lingering effect where the social stigma of breaking the build had been significantly reduced by the numerous build failures. It required some corrective action and communication to re-train the developers that breaking the build was not acceptable. Prior to the environment issues, all the developers were quite diligent about not breaking the build. Nobody wanted their name attached to build failures. However, after seeing build broken by numerous developers, it became socially accepted practice. "Everybody is doing it!"

An Email to Everybody is an Email to Nobody

Another interesting phenomenon took place during this time of numerous build failures. There were literally hundreds of emails sent out to large groups of people (it was not uncommon to send emails to distributions lists that had over 100 technical delivery team members). Many of these emails would outline a problem, but since they were addressed to nobody in particular, nobody took ownership for the issues. It was not until an email was sent addressed to a specific person that issues started being resolved.

Task Ownership Truth: The speed at which an issue is resolved is inversely proportional to the amount of people who are asked to fix the issue. If you want the issue fixed, make one person responsible. If you want to hear about the problem for days, assign it to a large group.

Leveraging Social Proof to Influence Positive Change

It is not possible for a single leader to influence every person within an organization. However, it is not necessary to do so. A good leader just needs to influence a significant number of people within the organization. Social proof will influence the rest. Once the laggards see that a particular practice is a "behavioral norm," they'll follow suit. To influence an entire organization, you first need to create the perception that "everybody is doing it." Once the perception is created, it'll become a self-fulfilling prophesy, and soon "everybody will be doing it."

The difficult part of enacting social proof is to get enough people moving initially, until the movement can take on a life of its own. In another article, I've outlined a detailed strategy for building a change coalition. In addition to the ideas in that article, the following ideas can also be leveraged to amass initial support for your movement. Many of these ideas are concept outlined in the book Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideas, by Mary Lynn Manns and Linda Rising.

  • Bring in a Thought Leader - sometimes bringing in a big name to talk about your idea will create instant credibility and support.
  • Use Bridge-Builders When Necessary - while you may not have the personal credibility to convince a particular group or individual, you may be able to sign up someone who has the credibility to sway the group or individuals that you are trying to convince.
  • Engage the Skeptic - find those who are most skeptical of your idea and solicit their feedback. While you may not be able to convince them, their valuable feedback can be used to solidify your arguments and to point out weaknesses in your plan.
  • Look for Higher Level Executives to Support Your Idea - getting the endorsement of a high-level executive can be extremely valuable in providing credibility and urgency for your idea.
  • Create a communication forum - create a forum that allows information to get out and publicize successes. This may be a newsletter, distribution list, or website, etc.
  • Be an Evangelist - If you want to convince people of the value of your idea, you need to let your passion show through. If you don't sound excited about it, it'll be very difficult to get others excited.
  • External Validation - find information external to the organization that will bring credibility to your idea. This may be in the form of a case study, statistics, examples of success in similar contexts, etc.
  • Group Identity - creating an identity for your idea and the people associated with it will help people recognize that it exists.
  • Enlist the Experts and Front-line Managers - It's critically important to have the necessary expertise to actually implement the change. Talk without action is just talk.
  • Enroll Innovators - Make sure you've signed up the innovators. They are the ones most willing to embrace change, and are usually the easiest to convince.
  • Share Success Stories - Make sure to communicate any success stories to a broad audience. This is a key component of leveraging the social proof principles. This allows people to feel the change happening while also building trust in the movement.

Are you interested in increasing cohesiveness and respect on your software team? Then continue reading...

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