Positive peer pressure and positive deviance

Peer pressure is really powerful.  The trouble is, it can be used for good or bad.  We aim to create positive peer pressure to achieve change, but it’s not always easy.

Do heroes help?

As discussed in the previous post, Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment to show how easy it is for good people to do bad in his “prison”.  He writes about heroes who go against the negative peer pressure, to avoid entering gangs, to stop picking on minorities.

Are these heroes positive deviants?  They are, but so what?  Are they just born different?  What happens to heroes in the community? What does that mean for others who may get pressurised into bad behaviour?  So what does that mean for changing behaviour and attitudes in organisations?

Working from the bottom up

There are (at least) two schools of positive deviance.  At the University of Michigan, they look at the nature of positive deviants, their values and beliefs.  They look at how they can influence others through their own actions and leadership in organisations.   Sarah Parkin takes the concept a stage further and identifies them as heroes who lead for the betterment of the planet.

Learning by observation and enquiry

We follow the Tufts University/Positive Deviance Initiative approach.   This is not so much about heroism and honour, but practicality.  Whilst they probably have different values, positive deviants do things differently and get some benefit from it.  If enough people try doing small things differently, copying what positive deviants do, and HOW, they start to see better results.  With reinforcement they will “act their way into a new way of thinking”.

We argue that it is easier for people to act their way into a new way of thinking, than think their way into a new way of acting.  This goes totally against the tradition that knowledge changes behaviour.

This needs awareness of the negative aspects of tradition and peer pressure.  Early in the process we ask people to collect stories about the negative impact of “good” traditions and peer pressure to challenge the accepted norm.  The groups collect evidence of what really works and what actually doesn’t.  The stories engage the emotions, and facts and figures challenge urban myths.

Creating the right environment to learn

As soon as possible, we ask the flip question, which turns a problem on its head.

“Is it possible for a woman not to be circumcised yet still to be virtuous?” was a question asked by Jerry and Monique Sternin in Egypt.  Community members recognised that there were indeed a few women like this, hidden away in their own social networks.  They learned from parents who pitied their female children, who protected them from mutilation, and what they did to enable this to happen. They saw social proof and start to accept that there may be another way, so they will at least try something different in a safe environment.

Connecting people for good

This can only happen with strong networks, so people have mutual support.

So this is how we teach Hidden Insights in both organisations and communities.  By involving as many stakeholders as possible in discovering what really works, we create positive energy.  This ripples out through the people, changes relationships and sustains and maintains improvement.  It creates positive peer pressure to join in.  It gives people confidence to be different, which is essential to avoid a negative spiral of behaviour.   It’s all about finding the right point in a process or system to intervene.  By starting with a small change, people get the confidence for a bigger one.  The positive relationships and networks last beyond the initial work and sustain the new behaviours.

This works really well in creating a new organisational culture without the need for a top-down culture change programme.  It also means that everyone can be a hero, not just the few.  And it’s fun and so much cheaper than learning from experts.

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