Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Compelling Others to Lie: The Power of Social Pressure

Two weeks ago, the New York Times ran an article titled, "Would You Lie for Me?"  The article featured the work of scholar Vanessa Bohns and her colleagues.  In a series of studies, Bohn and her co-authors examined whether people could compel others to engage in unethical acts.  Moreover, they looked at whether people thought that they could persuade others to behave unethically.  The results demonstrated that most people underestimated the extent to which they could pressure others to comply with their requests.   Here's an excerpt:

In one study, 25 college students asked 108 unfamiliar students to vandalize a library book. Targets who complied wrote the word “pickle” in pen on one of the pages.  As in the Milgram studies, many of the targets protested. They asked the instigators to take full responsibility for any repercussions. Yet, despite their hesitation, a large portion still complied.  Most important for our research question, more targets complied than participants had anticipated. Our participants predicted that an average of 28.5 percent would go along. In fact, fully half of those who were approached agreed. Moreover, 87 percent of participants underestimated the number they would be able to persuade to vandalize the book.

The scholars replicated this finding in a series of different studies.  What's the implication of these findings?   In my view, leaders need to take stock of their actions.   They need to think about how much their behavior, however subtly, may be affecting others' behaviors.  Leaders may not realize how much they may be influencing their organization members.  We may not think we are placing undue pressure on others, yet in fact, these colleagues are feeling compelled to act in a certain way.  In some cases, we may be pressuring them to behave in ways that are not consistent with their values or the stated organizational values.  We may not even intend to pressure them.   Nevertheless, we are influencing them.  In addition, we may fail to appreciate how difficult it might be for lower level employees to ask questions, push back, or resist engaging in certain conduct.  They may comply without ever questioning a course of action. We may fool ourselves into believing that they would object if they felt strongly.   Bottom line - they may not object because they feel such social pressure to comply. 

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