Help Them Be More Certain

By — on / Business Negotiations, Daily

Adapted from “Everybody’s Doing It,” by Robert B. Cialdini (professor, Arizona State University), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Brown University Medical School researchers conducted a fascinating study on the factors that influence adolescents to take up cigarette smoking. As expected, several personal, familial, and social circumstances were to blame. For instance, teens who had been delinquent or suffered depression were 14% more likely to become smokers than those without such histories, and teens with a parent who smoked were 26% more likely to take up smoking themselves. No surprises there.

More notable is the dramatic impact of peers on the decision to smoke regularly. Among teens who had two friends with the habit, cigarette smoking increased by 1,000%, and rose by a staggering 2,400% among those with at least three friends who smoked!

The Brown study dramatically illustrates the potency of social proof—evidence from our social environment about the “right” way to behave. One fundamental way that people decide how to act in a negotiation, or in any situation, is to look at how others have behaved in similar circumstances. Other people’s responses help us identify paths we might choose to take. By following the lead of others, we can make quicker, more efficient decisions about how to act. If all of your colleagues are raving about a new piece of software, a new movie, or a new restaurant, chances are good that you’ll like it, too.

The findings of the Brown study are sobering, yet instructive for those of us who seek more influence in our professional roles. Teens are hardly alone in their susceptibility to peer pressure. In general, when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar situation, all of us will look outside ourselves for evidence of how to behave. Uncertainty motivates us to study the actions of others for information that will guide our own behavior. It stands to reason: if we look inside ourselves and find only murky uncertainty, we’ll be primed to take the lead from someone who’s been there, done that.

How does uncertainty affect influence attempts on the job? As a negotiator and manager, you must be aware of the conditions that stimulate uncertainty in those whom you seek to influence. And when the conditions are right, you’ll need to make a special effort to marshal social proof for the steps you’re advocating. When proposing an entirely new element to an existing arrangement or contract, for instance, the savvy negotiator will recognize her bargaining opponent’s lack of familiarity with the novel feature and come prepared with evidence—survey results, testimonials, statistics—of its success with others.

Similarly, when negotiating new job responsibilities with an employee, a wise manager will go beyond the usual appeals to the best interests of the employee and the organization. He’ll also respond to the employee’s uncertainties with appropriate social proof for the recommended change, such as accounts of others’ willingness to be reassigned in the past.

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