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