Multiethnic Group of People Meeting with Speech Bubble

Ideas exist in our minds. They are spread by people—their virality requires that one person share the idea and then get another’s buy-in. This may seem obvious, but as discussed at the Persuasion & Influence panel session at the 2015 NeuroLeadership Summit, leaders can often overlook the necessity of effective influence and persuasion for an idea to be “sticky” (that is, to be accepted and retained in another’s mind).

As Dr. Jay Van Bavel from NYU described, social pressure can exert enough sway that humans predictably go along with group consensus even when they know the group is wrong. This is a predictable fact, but it’s not one that changes someone’s mind. While people may say things to fit in, in the moment, new beliefs won’t be implanted this way. The implications for leaders is that fear- or power-based group influence won’t persist.

What’s more powerful is to encourage desired behavior change by describing others within a person’s in-group (people you feel are similar to you) having already taken similar action. This is positive social pressure and can have dramatic influence on behavior. Hotel signage encouraging guests to “Join your fellow citizens in helping to save the environment” saw 41% reusing their towels, while only 20% were responsive to “Help save the hotel save energy.”

Donna Brighton, of Brighton Leadership group, said one way for companies to leverage positive social pressure is to have change agents within an organization who are part of local in-groups, to “formalize the informal grapevine.” Avoid change-management language when building executive buy-in of change initiatives. Rather, language should  be chosen to appeal to the preferences of the person you’re trying to persuade, in both content and vocabulary.