Successful Supervisor Part 7 – Using Peer Pressure

January 2, 2017

Everyone knows there is such a thing as “peer pressure.” It is kind of intangible at times and often hard to control, but the group mentality has a lot to do with how people behave. It is also pivotal for morale and engagement in the workplace.

For a supervisor, trying to harness and use peer pressure is often a minefield. From the outside, it may look and feel manipulative, yet to ignore its existence would be a significant missed opportunity.

In this article, we will examine the phenomenon of peer pressure from several different angles and examine some of the ways to use it with integrity and also some ways it can be abused, leading to the opposite impact than the supervisor intended.

The first principle is that not every situation and group is the same in terms of how peer pressure is manifest in the organization. The wise supervisor realizes that there is such a force but holds back from trying to use it until she has a firm grasp of the social structure and what is actually going on.

Why is peer pressure so powerful?

In any group, from inmates in a prison yard to cabinet members of an administration (can you tell the difference?), a set of interpersonal behaviors emerges that tells the members who they are and how they act in certain situations.

These preferred behaviors are rarely written down, and they are most heavily influenced by the informal leader of the group. Note: the informal leader is the person to whom people listen the most, and it is often not the actual leader of the group, unless that person is an especially talented leader.

For ease of communication in this article, I will call the expected set of behaviors the group’s Code of Conduct, or COC.

In any set of circumstances, the COC determines how the group members are supposed to act and react to the daily challenges that come up. The attitude of the members, in most circumstances, will be consistent with what the COC prescribes.

The COC can shift a bit based on local conditions or periods of uncertainty, but in general it is a stable set of group norms that everyone in the group understands, albeit sometimes unconsciously.

A supervisor who understands the COC is able to predict with reasonable accuracy how the group will respond to a stimulus or challenge. This knowledge can be a blessing or a curse for the supervisor.

If the supervisor uses the knowledge to manipulate people, they often resent it and push back hard, because they have a feeling of being maneuvered into doing something. The Supervisor’s logic would feel like this, “I’m going to lay this out so that you have no option but to do what I want because of your own rules of behavior.”

If instead, she uses the knowledge to demonstrate her affection and understanding of the group, it can endear her to people in a helpful way. In this case, the logic would feel like this, “I know your group prefers to hear things that affect you quickly, whether the news is good or bad. I always provide timely communication, so you know where things are headed. I inform you as soon as I know something out of a sense of respect.”

Follow the Leader

Humans, just like animals, establish a kind of informal pecking order in terms of leadership. In any group there will be an inner council of the most influential people, and typically, one leader of that pack. This person sets the tone of the group with regard to its attitude toward the supervisor and management in general.

Often the supervisor was a former leader of the informal pack who was elevated because of her obvious influence. In this case, another individual will backfill for the, now-promoted, former leader to become the new leader of the pack.

For the supervisor, the good news is that it is not hard at all to figure out who the informal leader is. The territory is staked out and defended by all forms of body language and tonal qualities when the person is speaking. The informal leader does not need to be the most vociferous person in the group, although sometimes that happens. The overarching characteristic is one of greater influence than anybody else in the group.

Once the person has been identified, it provides an opportunity for the supervisor to tap into that person as a resource. I like to think of the process as just becoming a lot closer to the person. When I employed this method, I actually felt like I was “adopting” the person in order to understand him or her at a deeper level.

Whether the informal leader is generally negative toward management or positive, it helps the supervisor to have a wide open channel of communication with that individual. Of course, the supervisor is smart to create a bond of trust with every person in her group, but that mandate is amplified when it comes to the informal leader.

The enhanced communication channel is always a two-way street. The individual benefits from understanding the point of view of the supervisor better, and the supervisor gains the understanding of what makes the person tick.

The supervisor can test possible ideas with the person, in confidence, and get some feedback on whether they might be embraced by the group. If the channel is wide open, then the informal leader will tell the supervisor immediately when she is pushing the group too hard or is about to blunder into an unwise policy for the group.

I like to think of this relationship with the informal leader as having a bottle of “Anti-Stupid Pills” that can be doled out to the supervisor whenever a remedy is needed most. If the supervisor reacts in ways that makes the informal leader glad to have shared the information, it will deepen the relationship of trust, and the leader will be more inclined to share sensitive thoughts in the future.

All of these dynamics usually happen in private, but the information, and the supervisor’s reaction, are quickly communicated to the group through informal channels. In this way, the group becomes well informed and the supervisor is protected from making bonehead decisions inadvertently.

The danger of this method is that the supervisor is singling out a person for more attention. People can easily pick up on this dynamic and become negative about the relationship. The smart supervisor works to maintain constant communication with everyone on a daily basis and fosters a cordial relationship with each person.

Try Better Teamwork

Another common method of appealing to peer pressure without being manipulative is to foster a true sense of teamwork within the group. Supervisors who invest time and energy into helping their teams work very well together gain in numerous ways.

In my division, I encouraged each manager and supervisor to take his or her team off site for at least a half day every month. I found over the years that these team building and strategy sessions paid for themselves ten times over in terms of productivity for the remainder of the time. Reason: when people know and respect each other as mates, then the backbiting and dysfunctional behaviors usually melt away.

The precaution here is to test every time if the off-site work is still helping the team to grow. Sometimes, and with some groups, the teambuilding efforts can become a burden or an unwanted disruption. It is important to test the vitality of the interfaces periodically.

One important ingredient was to have a good facilitator who was not on the team guide the discussions and activities. Paying for these facilitators was an investment I was happy to make because the benefits outweighed the costs by orders of magnitude. When people feel great about being on a winning team, they gladly put forth extra effort daily, and any would-be slackers are brought around through peer pressure.

What to avoid

Basically anything that might be interpreted as manipulation has a bigger chance of backfiring than succeeding. A common mistake supervisors make is to pit some people on the team against others in a form of intimidation. It is a ploy that is easily detected through body language, and it lowers trust instantly. If there is a discipline problem with one or two people, the supervisor needs to own the issue and work with the problem people directly rather than attempt to have the group do it through peer pressure.

Another thing for the supervisor to avoid is participating in any form of gossip or rumors. These hurtful practices lower trust and cause a lot of damage. I once had a supervisor who had “loose lips.” She would go around telling people information “on the QT” and people learned quickly not to trust her.

Basically the logic is simple; while the supervisor was whispering some juicy information about someone else, the recipient is thinking, “I wonder what she tells other people about me.”

A part of integrity is keeping confidential information from leaking out. Further, it is the supervisor’s responsibility to coach any individuals who spread rumors that leaking confidential or questionable information about other people, regardless of their position, will not be tolerated.

These are a few of the tips on how and how not to utilize peer pressure if you are a supervisor. They come from my own experiences along the way. There are countless other techniques that may prove helpful to you. My advice is to monitor what tools you find most effective and practice them consciously and with care. Peer pressure is powerful and can be a significant positive force in any group, if it is properly managed.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Negativity is like a cancer

May 17, 2014

SynapseI believe that negativity is a kind of cancer that occurs in many organizations. It has a growing and debilitating impact on any group where it is allowed to fester.

Stamping out all negativity is a daunting a task, just like trying to stamp out all diseased cells in a human body that has been infected with a cancer.

For the survival of the organism, it is important to try as best we can to get rid of the problems. This article suggests some possible treatments for a negativity disease that has taken root in an organization.

It is important to realize that the cause of negativity may or may not be legitimate. Some people are just negative by nature and will grumble even under ideal conditions, while others become negative only after years of what they perceive as abuse.

For example, if you are a leader and are faced with a number of people who poison the environment with toxic rhetoric daily, you need to consider whether you and your policies have done enough to create an environment of trust.

If you are a leader in a group where there are just one or two individuals that are usually the ones generating negativity, what strategies can you use to turn the situation around?

First, you need to identify the sources of negativity. You must find the tumor. This is a simple task. Usually people know which individuals instigate most of the negative energy in a group.

Often they are “informal leaders” to whom other people listen. Once you have identified the ringleaders of negativity, you need to establish a specific strategy to deal with these people, and, hopefully, turn them around.

There are many options to do this, just as there are many treatments for physical cancer depending on the type of cancer, the stage of the disease, and the physician doing the treatments. Here are a few possible tools to rid an organization of negativity.

Seek assistance through peers. The peers of the troublemaker have the ability to let the person know that the organization would be in better shape if this person could lighten up.

It could be that the peer pressure takes the form of some jovial ribbing about the propensity to be negative. (Note: I will use the female pronoun in the rest of this article, but realize the situation would be the same for both genders.)

Peer pressure might take the form of a group agreeing to make only positive comments for two days and see who breaks ranks first. The idea here is to expose the tumor clearly so treatment is easier and can be more focused.

Adopt the person. As a leader, you are free to “adopt” a troublemaker so you can open an ongoing dialog. Try to understand her psychological makeup to find out what drives her to be negative.

By listening intently to her message and reinforcing her candor rather than always fighting the message, you can gain a better understanding of her point of view, and she will trust you more. Learn her aspirations and dreams. Find out about her family life. Take a real interest.

This process is similar to all the diagnostic tests done on a cancer patient. Also, let her know that you value her ideas simply because she is an informal leader.

Bring her into the management circle as a resource. Seek out ways to involve her ideas in decisions that impact the group.

In some cases, you can turn the person completely around, and you have a super positive person who is also a natural leader. Wow! That changes the culture quickly. I have seen miracles like this happen.

Level with the person – You might take the approach to be logical with her. Take her aside and reflect that you know at least some of the negative energy that gives rise to low morale and rumors is coming from her.

Let her know that she is hurting this organization by doing this. Ask for her help to turn down the negative energy when talking with people. Set an expectation that she can change her mental process to be a better citizen.

Perhaps send her to a course like the Dale Carnegie Course. This strategy will not work with every hardened grumbler, but in some cases the gentle medication approach can cause the cancer to get better without more radical treatment.

This is especially true when the condition is caught early. In this case your own candor may help bridge a trust gap and be a kind of wakeup call this person was needing.

Isolate her by moving her to another area. This is a dangerous ploy, and it would backfire in all but the most extreme cases.

If it is either fire this woman or move her to a different environment, you can try the latter. You would need to couple this approach with a progressive counseling process, so she would be on Final Warning at the time of reassignment.

In the case of dual grumblers, sometimes by separating the individuals, you can divide and conquer, since they lose their synergy by not being allowed to inflame each other.

Often it is safer to just cut out the tumor and be done with it. That is an option, especially if the negativity is starting to spread to many others.

Do some team building – You might be able to impact the negativity by some simple team building techniques. Make sure the group shares a common goal, and work to build trust within the team.

It is hard to maintain negativity in an environment of high trust. Spend time documenting the behaviors that the group intends to follow. This will allow other members to call her on negativity once the group decides this is inappropriate behavior.

There are other ways to chip away at negativity in a work group. Use your imagination, and do not always use the same approach.

What works with one individual might backfire in another case, just as treating any individual with cancer needs to have a unique approach. Be flexible, creative, and persistent, and you will be able to turn around many of the cells of negativity. Do not expect to win them all. You cannot.

Finally, if there are several groups who are negative in your sphere of influence, you need to consider that the real problem might be you. Or it could be another weak link somewhere else in the management chain.

It could be that corporate communications or policies are inhibiting trust. In my leadership consulting experience, the problem of low trust can often be traced to a leader with low Emotional Intelligence. Investigate this possibility thoroughly without being defensive.

If there is too much negativity in your organization, what are you doing to change your own behaviors? People generally become negative when they feel abused over a long period of time. Look at your own policies and practices and figure out if you can reduce negativity easily by changing yourself than by trying to change them.

It is up to the leader to take responsibility for building an environment of trust.


The Abilene Paradox

September 21, 2013

Beautiful girl in studioThis subject is really old news, but it bears repeating because the condition runs rampant in any organization, even today, and we often fail to see it happening right under our noses. The title is so old, there are probably many readers who have not even heard of it. The lesson revealed is as applicable today as it was when management expert Jerry B. Harvey first wrote about it way back in 1974.

Jerry told a story of a family sweltering in the heat in Coleman, Texas, on a Sunday afternoon http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Abilene_Paradox. The group of four were sweating out the afternoon by playing dominos on the front porch and drinking lemonade. The father made idle conversation, asking if anyone wanted to take a 50 mile drive to Abilene to eat at the cafeteria there. The mother indicated it would be a nice idea, and the two adult children went along with it because they each thought the parents wanted to go.

It turned out that none of the individuals truly wanted to go, but they each agreed to the idea for the sake of the others. The trip was miserable, with 108 degree heat and no air conditioning. When the family returned, someone said it would have been better to skip the whole thing. All of a sudden all four people realized that nobody had really wanted to go, but none of them had the courage to challenge the idea. Bingo, you have the Abilene Paradox, where a group of people actually do something that not a single person in the group really wants to do.

In his blog this week, Charlie Green http://trustedadvisor.com/trustmatters/selling-to-mr-spock recalled that Mr. Spock, the half-man, half-Vulcan in the Star Trek Series once uttered, “it is curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.” – Mr. Spock in “Errand of Mercy.”

You are probably saying, We would never get caught with that kind of logic today with our rapid communication and constant texting. Don’t be so sure. Actually the mentality to “go along to get along” is alive and well in any group of people today. The irony is that one prime reason the Abilene Paradox flourishes has to do with teamwork. People do not like to go against what they believe is the will of the majority, so they clam up. By not objecting themselves, they become part of the silent majority of people who would rather stay home but are too shy to speak their mind until it is too late.

Lest you think the situation is not common today, keep your eyes open and you will see The Abilene Paradox in full operation nearly every day. Here are some examples.

A scout troop is on a canoe trip, and someone suggests they go to the next lake before quitting for the night. Everyone is exhausted from paddling all day, but nobody wants to admit to being tired, so they all portage over to the next lake and paddle another 3 hours before breaking for the night. None of the scouts seem to be in a good mood when they reach their campsite.

A husband and wife are seen at a car dealer discussing what color car to purchase. In reality, neither of them wants the model they are considering, but both believe the other person does, so they argue over the color hoping that argument will cause them not to get the car they think the other person wants.

A supervisor is convinced a project is going nowhere, but believes the boss is enamored of the project, so the supervisor keeps plugging along in a desperate struggle to make the project a success. In meetings, everyone expresses optimism that the project is turning a corner, when there is a ton of evidence that the project is never going to make it.

Someone on a design team suggests they put the volume control on the side rather than the front. Most people realize it will be awkward for customers to deal with the volume because the carrying case covers up the control, but nobody has the courage to tell the head designer of the conflict. Since the design team is not complaining, the head designer believes they all want the volume control on the side and allows it go out as a flawed product.

A young couple decides to get married because each of them believes the other’s parents are sold on the idea of them as a married couple and it would “break their hearts” if they split up. The couple actually is not even in love, but they go along with the entire wedding preparation because neither of them has the gumption to ask if they really should get married.

The list of examples goes on in hundreds of small and large charades every day in organizations of all types and sizes. How would it be possible to break the pattern so that people will not spend time and money in ways the individuals involved do not want?

The secret lies in having a culture where it is not only OK to challenge the conventional wisdom, it is encouraged. If everyone knew there would be no penalty for sharing his or her preference openly, then the stigma of the Abilene Paradox would be broken. It often takes only one challenge to bring down the entire house of cards.

For example, if the mother had decided she would rather not drive to Abilene and back for three hours in a hot car just to have a poorly-cooked meal, the other three people would have backed out in a heartbeat, because nobody really wanted to go.

Next time your team is in tepid agreement over some issue, simply say, “Let’s get real. Does everyone really want to go to Abilene on this issue?” If one person has the courage to express his or her true feelings, then at least a democratic vote rather than peer pressure can govern the course of action.


Negativity is a Cancer

March 13, 2011

I believe that negativity is a kind of cancer that occurs in many organizations. It has a growing and debilitating impact on any group where it is allowed to fester. Stamping out all negativity is a daunting a task, just like trying to stamp out all diseased cells in a human body that has been infected with a cancer. For the survival of the organism, it is important to try as best we can to get rid of the problems. This article suggests some possible treatments for a negativity disease that has taken root in an organization.

It is important to realize that the cause of negativity may or may not be legitimate. Some people are just negative by nature and will grumble even under ideal conditions, while others become negative only after years of what they perceive as abuse. For example, if you are a leader and are faced with a number of people who poison the environment with toxic rhetoric daily, you need to consider whether you and your policies have done enough to create an environment of trust. If you are a leader in a group where there are just one or two individuals that are usually the ones generating negativity, what strategies can you use to turn the situation around?

First, you need to identify the sources of negativity. You must find the tumor. This is a simple task. Usually people know which individuals instigate most of the negative energy in a group. Often they are “informal leaders” to whom other people listen. Once you have identified the ringleaders of negativity, you need to establish a specific strategy to deal with these people, and, hopefully, turn them around. There are many options to do this, just as there are many treatments for physical cancer depending on the type of cancer, the stage of the disease, and the physician doing the treatments. Here are a few possible tools to rid an organization of negativity.

Seek assistance through peers. The peers of the troublemaker have the ability to let the person know that the organization would be in better shape if this person could lighten up. It could be that the peer pressure takes the form of some jovial ribbing about the propensity to be negative. (Note: I will use the female pronoun in the rest of this article, but realize the situation would be the same for both genders.) Peer pressure might take the form of a group agreeing to make only positive comments for two days and see who breaks ranks first. The idea here is to expose the tumor clearly so treatment is easier and can be more focused.

Adopt the person. As a leader, you are free to “adopt” a troublemaker so you can open an ongoing dialog. Try to understand her psychological makeup to find out what drives her to be negative. By listening intently to her message and reinforcing her candor rather than always fighting the message, you can gain a better understanding of her point of view, and she will trust you more. Learn her aspirations and dreams. Find out about her family life. Take a real interest. This is similar to all the diagnostic tests done on a cancer patient. Also, let her know that you value her ideas simply because she is an informal leader. Bring her into the management circle as a resource. Seek out ways to involve her ideas in decisions that impact the group. In some cases, you can turn the person completely around, and you have a super positive person who is also a natural leader. Wow! That changes the culture quickly. I have seen miracles like this happen.

Level with the person. You might take the approach to be logical with her. Take her aside and reflect that you know at least some of the negative energy that gives rise to low morale and rumors is coming from her. Let her know that she is hurting this organization by doing this. Ask for her help to turn down the negative energy when talking with people. Set an expectation that she can change her mental process to be a better citizen. Perhaps send her to a course like the Dale Carnegie Course. This strategy will not work with every hardened grumbler, but in some cases the gentle medication approach can cause the cancer to get better without more radical treatment. This is especially true when the condition is caught early. In this case your own candor may help bridge a trust gap and be a kind of wakeup call this person was needing.

Isolate her by moving her to another area. This is a dangerous ploy, and it would backfire in all but the most extreme cases. If it is either fire this woman or move her to a different environment, you can try the latter. You would need to couple this approach with a progressive counseling process, so she would be on Final Warning at the time of reassignment. In the case of dual grumblers, sometimes by separating the individuals, you can divide and conquer, since they lose their synergy by not being allowed to inflame each other. Often it is safer to just cut out the tumor and be done with it. That is an option, especially if the negativity is starting to spread to many others.

Do some team building. You might be able to impact the negativity by some simple team building techniques. Make sure the group shares a common goal, and work to build trust within the team. It is hard to maintain negativity in an environment of high trust. Spend time documenting the behaviors that the group intends to follow. This will allow other members to call her on negativity once the group decides this is inappropriate behavior.

There are other ways to chip away at negativity in a work group. Use your imagination, and do not always use the same approach. What works with one individual might backfire in another case, just as treating any individual with cancer needs to have a unique approach. Be flexible, creative, and persistent, and you will be able to turn around many of the cells of negativity. Do not expect to win them all. You cannot.

Finally, if there are several groups who are negative in your sphere of influence, you need to consider that the real problem might be you. Or it could be another weak link somewhere else in the management chain. It could be that corporate communications or policies are inhibiting trust. In my leadership consulting experience, the problem of low trust can often be traced to a leader with low Emotional Intelligence. Investigate this possibility thoroughly without being defensive.

If there is too much negativity in your organization, what are you doing to change your own behaviors? People generally become negative when they feel abused over a long period of time. Look at your own policies and practices and figure out if you can reduce negativity more easily by changing yourself than by trying to change them.

It is up to the leader to take responsibility for building an environment of trust.