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Unspoken Rules: Peer Pressure Isn't Just About Teenagers

Posted Mar 24 2009 3:17pm

Many years ago my friend and associate Dr. Bud Bilanich and I worked together at Pfizer headquarters in NYC. One day, we decided that the elevator ride up to the 19th floor was just too quiet. No one spoke to each other even though we all worked for the same company. (Clearly, Bud and I had grown  up in the suburbs). Our foray into the Land of Unspoken Rules is described here.

Rewind even further to a popular TV show: Candid Camera. This was a genuine reality show because those being filmed didn't know it. Without citing lengthy psychological research papers, Candid Camera captured the human condition for all to see and ponder.

Compliance vs. Agreement

How often have you experienced one or more of these:

1. A workshop leader asks the "How Many of You Have. . .?, raises her hand, and the participants arms shoot skyward. The impact: Lots of agreement--the workshop leader must know what she's talking about. Credibility begins to build.

What you don't know is: Even though all these people "have done" the thing, what was their experience with it? Would they do it again? How many didn't want to be seen as not being part of the "in crowd" once the hands started to go up?

2. A senior manager announces a new initiative. He then rattles off a list of executives and department heads who are 100% with him on this. One of those names is your boss. He then asks, "How many of you can I count on?" You watch the hands go up, one by one.

3. You are at an off-site meeting that started at 7 a.m. It is now 7 p.m. and the announcement has been made that a group dinner will be held at Maison Conformité. You really want to go back to your room and crash. People start mulling around, unenthusiastically. Yet at 7:30 pm all of you are now at the restaurant, tired and superficially cordial.

It's easy to use known techniques that play on the human condition in ways to gain desired behavior. The question becomes, "Are you getting (or giving) compliance or agreement?"

The distinction will be crystal clear when the time comes for commitment and action.

Enjoy the video and join me for a thought at the end: 

In none of the examples I cited above--nor in the video--did anyone ask a question that could change the dynamic.

Are there instances of group pressure where asking a perfectly sensible question is viewed as more dangerous than "going along?" If so, what groups do you belong to whose unspoken norms create obstacles to sensible questions? How's that working for you?

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