Just like any social group, there is pressure among coworkers to conform to the accepted group dynamic. This has a centering effect on a team. Groups have a tendency to pull individuals from extremes toward the center of a group.
Under performing individuals are pressured to pull their own weight, which is a good thing. Over performing individuals, especially those who do it through hard work, may feel pressured to slow down, which adds drag to an organization’s progress.
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It is extremely hard to fight peer pressure. Look at kids in school. If a child is ‘too smart’ they get labeled and teased. If they are on the low side, they may also get teased. In the first case, the person may conceal their academic aptitude. Or, they may choose to alter their path to focus on something that helps them fit in, even at the expense of their studies. Very few people have the strength to thrive in the face of peer pressure.
Peer pressure is not all bad, though. An overweight child may feel pressure to participate in playground games and sports, which can result in higher levels of fitness. A child who steps over a line from mischief to criminal behavior may also get reined in by his or her peers.
Note that peer pressure may be positive or negative. Teasing and badgering falls on one side of the spectrum. Encouragement falls on the other end.
Peer pressure is similar in workplace environments. Slackers get reigned in, and high achievers can get alienated if they don’t conform. This can make driving change in your organization a challenge. Your supporters, in the face of peer pressure, may be reluctant to overtly back continuous improvement efforts. Good leaders are willing to step up and say what they think. Fewer front line employees will do the same, as they tend to place significant value on their social relationships with those around them.
Peer pressure thrives in secrecy and in leadership vacuums. If you are in charge of a team, be present. A lot.
Focus on rewards to overcome negative peer pressure.
Peer pressure can be challenging to overcome. It is often subtle and applied over time, so even identifying it can be a problem. Keep this in mind, though. In purely social environments, the relationship is its own reward. People join groups to have companionship. In the workplace, the social interaction is secondary to the need to make money. For that reason, there is a way to overcome peer pressure. If the rewards available to the team—special recognition with things like days off, the best accounts, promotions, free lunches, bigger raises—are known to go to those that do what the organization expects, then people will migrate in that direction.
Rewards and recognition should be given for being successful, but also for attempting the behaviors that the company wants. In most situations, I am an advocate for results. Rewards that are known to go only to the top performers, though, tend not to influence the middle tier. The feel it is out of reach to them, so they won’t try.
Team rewards are also effective at generating positive peer pressure. They have to have an immediate, clearly identifiable cause and effect, though. Annual profit sharing plans and the like don’t typically make a person change their everyday behavior. The rewards are just too far off.
Daily management is yet another way to manage peer pressure. Peer pressure thrives in secrecy. Daily management makes situations transparent. It is easy to convince someone not to talk about a problem when there is nobody around. It is much harder to do that when the numbers are up on a board and a group is working root cause analysis to figure out where some variation came from.