What if the things we do without thinking are not the right thing to do? What if we are lead in the wrong direction? Unconsciously. “I would like my collaborators to think more for themselves,” sighed Sofie Dutordoir, during a leadership interview I had with her. It’s the common complaint in organisations these days. CEO’s would like their people to ‘stand up’, to ‘take ownership’, to be ‘moral aware’. At the same time, the pressure to ‘do what has to be done’ has never been greater. Computer models define the markets. Not humans.
Most of the time, we are followers. We follow the leads and the cues around us. We don’t think about every decision, every action, every part of our live. And that’s good. We wouldn’t survive a day without shortcuts. Life is simply too complex to think about all of our actions in all of their consequences. We rely on social mechanisms and trust these mechanisms. They lead us in the right way. They make us do the right thing. Efficiently. Most of the time.
Few phenomena in psychology are so thoroughly researched as social influence. And little research into the human psyche is so well applied in the business as the social influence research. And yet. Not much talk about it in business schools. Not much talk about it in leadership trainings. Not much talk about it in change management.
That is strange & a pity. Strange, because influence is at the heart of leadership. It’s the X-factor of leadership. Leadership is being free from social influence to define one’s own direction and at the same time being a source of influence. Leadership is knowing what, how and who to follow. Pity, because a better understanding of the social influences makes us more free. It gives us the power of the pause button: a moment of self-reflection to check whether we want to subside to that influence.
Robert Cialdini* is an authority in social influence. He distinguishes 6 laws of social influence. The first one is the law of reciprocity: we are programmed to give back what we receive. This is the basis of all human trade and help. It’s universal: when we receive a gift, we are obliged to return the favor. We are hardwired like that, because it’s critical for our society, for living together. The moment we distrust reciprocity, social interaction stops. It’s also the success of the social media and of the ‘free’ economy. The moment we accept our free copy of a book, or free advice, we’re in debt. We will be inclined to return the favor. And if we don’t, we’ll be disliked and cut off the group. Reciprocity is at the heart of business deals, sponsoring and politics.
A more advanced form of reciprocity is the making of concessions. If someone makes a concession to us, we are obligated to make a concession ourselves. Good negotiation tactics starts with a high opening bid and a concession afterwards. The force of reciprocity will make us ‘return’ the concession. In one experiment, students were asked to work for two unpaid hours one day in a community mental-health agency. 29 % volunteered and 50 % of those actually showed up. Another group of students was first asked to work two unpaid hours per week for two years. When they declined, they were asked for the two hours one day. 76 % of these students agreed and 85 % of those showed up. Same thing in stores. We’ll me more inclined to by a piece of clothing, if we first decline to an expensive one.
Reciprocity is key in leadership. Leaders show the way. They take the first step. They give the example. They don’t start with asking favors. The force of reciprocity will make people follow.
*CIALDINI, Robert (2007). The psychology of persuasion. New York: HarperCollins publishers, 320 p.