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How to Influence Groups Of People

If you’ve ever been the new kid on the block, you’ll know how difficult it is to have your views accepted by the ‘established group’. For instance, imagine you’ve joined a new company and you’re attending a think tank to discuss a problem which is new to them, but old hat to you.

Something you experienced and dealt with in your previous job. In theory, your views should be welcomed with open arms. But in practice, it’s more likely to be open mouths. Who does this up-start think he is? He’s only been here five minutes……

This group behaviour is what Psychologist Matthew Hornsey from the University of Queensland calls ‘Unreasoning hostility’. It consists of having your views largely ignored or over-looked.

In my house it’s called parenting.

Anyway, to test the theory, Matthew’s researchers asked 200 health professionals for their opinions on criticism levelled at their hospital by an independent observer. However, whilst one half were led to believe that the critic was a newcomer who had worked there only three weeks, the other half were told that it was the views of someone who had worked at the hospital for 18 years. Naturally, the criticisms were identical, with the only difference being the apparent source.

As suspected, the views of the ‘newcomer’ were thought to carry less weight than those of the ‘old-timer’. What’s more, their criticism was also seen as less constructive whilst their suggestions were more readily dismissed by the health professionals.

It’s one of the ways groups form their opinions by ‘polarising’ their views. A handful of people feel very strongly that the view of the newcomer is wrong and fellow members of the group - who didn’t feel quite so strong initially, become more and more convinced of the ‘team view’.

So, as a newcomer, how do you worm your way into a group’s affections and begin to generate influence?  The answer is to tread carefully and gain acceptance first. Once you become part of the group you can begin to make all manner of recommendations, however absurd. Newly appointed cabinet ministers are prime examples. For instance, you wouldn’t ask the Minister for Transport for expert advice on a schools matter. You’d wait until the cabinet re-shuffle next week and ask him when he’s Minister for Education.

Bottom line is you have to be part of the group. A fully paid-up member of the club. One of them. You see, consciously or otherwise, people want others to value their group as much as they do. So distancing yourself from an old group or employer increases your perceived allegiance to the new one. And criticism from a committed group member is seen as much more valid. In effect, it sweetens the bitter pill of reality.

Of course, the temptation when joining a new group is to try to make a big splash and impress others with your critical perceptions and new ideas. But this research tells us that toeing the line in the first instance is often the best long-term strategy. Remember, groups are hostile to criticism from newcomers and are likely to resist, dismiss or ignore it. Until you can prove your loyalty.

So if you’re a newcomer and want to gain influence and promote change in your new surroundings make sure you get well-established first. Because sometimes being right just isn’t enough.

And if you should ever find yourself standing in the dock, cross your fingers that you are tried by one solitary judge rather than a panel of three. Because research into 1,500 trials in the U.S. by Thomas Walker and Eleanor Main has shown that when judges sit alone they take an extreme course of action only 30% of the time.
But when sitting in a group of three this figure more than doubles to 65%.
So why is this? Well, again, it’s the phenomenon known as “Group Polarisation”.

And it’s one that’s not only present in courts of law but also in your workplace too. The only difference is that you don’t occasionally send an old lady to jail for twenty years just for holding up the queue in the post office.

Conventional wisdom used to suggest that whenever any group of people arrive at a joint decision, that decision would broadly represent the average view of the individuals - thus averaging out the extremity of views. However, a whole body of psychological research has turned this theory on its head. Instead, it concludes that group discussions tend to polarise a person’s view, making them more exaggerated and extreme.

For instance, few people know this, but the panel who tried Joan of Arc were originally planning to let her off with just a fine. It was only after a series of heated discussions that they concluded, ‘on second thoughts, let’s torch her’.

It’s the same in other situations. After a group discussion, people who already support a war become more supportive; people with a tendency towards racism become more racist; and those with a slight preference for one job candidate over another will end up with an even greater preference for that candidate as more and more people ‘polarise’ towards the candidate.

So how can you use this knowledge to your advantage? Well, in group discussions we know that individuals who don’t initially agree with the consensus of opinion will eventually agree with the majority. Sure, some may be swayed by a rational counter-argument, but most will eventually conform to the view of the group. Couple that with the desire to make the sort of impactful decision that a committee is expected to make and decisions are pushed further towards the extreme.

(Sarita Yardi of Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta and Danah Boyd of Microsoft analysed 30,000 tweets on Twitter regarding the shooting of George Tiller, a late term abortion doctor. Again, they found that like-minded individuals strengthen group identity whereas replies between different-minded individuals reinforce a split in affiliation. People will group together based on opinions and polarise in one direction even when they haven’t met.)

So here’s what to do if you want to influence a group of people.

Lobby beforehand.

Give them the rational argument prior to the meeting. Politicians have lobbied for centuries because they know that you need as many people as possible leaning to your point of view from the outset. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always bribery.

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