The evidence from social science is clear: people’s behavior is powerfully influenced by the actions of those who are like them. A classic study by Harvey Hornstein, Elisha Fisch, and Michael Holmes found that New York City residents were highly likely to return a lost wallet after learning that a “similar other”—another New Yorker—had first tried to do so. But evidence that a dissimilar other—a foreigner—had tried to return the wallet did not increase the likelihood that they would try. When people are trying to determine how to act, they pay attention to how others like them behave in the same situation.
Negotiators who overlook the value of similarity in influencing decision making can rely on the wrong individuals to deliver important messages. One common mistake is to take sole responsibility for communicating the wisdom of a particular policy or the need for change. By taking on the sole burden of persuasion, negotiators give too much credit to their position in the organizational hierarchy or their own powers of influence.
The most effective communicators recognize when they are not the most effective communicators. Specifically, they know that the best route to influence can be from the side rather than from above. For influence practitioners, this means allowing individuals who haven’t yet changed in the desired direction to hear from those who have. Even one exposure to the favorable positions of peers on a topic can have more impact than multiple exposures to the same position from a negotiation opponent or a supervisor.
Both inside and outside the organizational envelope, then, the same principle applies: persuading one individual by providing evidence that some very different others have done so can be a big waste of time.
A related point: when working to ensure that the voices of supportive individuals will be heard, leaders should give greatest priority to those who are most similar in circumstances to the still-unconvinced. Imagine that resistance to a beneficial change is strongest among the longest-employed members of a department. This group is most likely to be influenced by a fellow old-timer who has genuinely embraced the rationale for change. Therefore, leaders would be well advised to resist the temptation to encourage a newer (although more articulate) member of the group to speak up instead. Canny sales managers teach a version of this lesson to their troops by coaching them to use testimonials from satisfied customers who share a similar business background with new prospects.
Adapted from “Everybody’s Doing It,” by Robert B. Cialdini (professor, Arizona State University), first published in the Negotiation newsletter, January 2004.