The Influence of Peers

By David Friedman, Founder/CEO

A number of years ago, I was visiting a dear friend of mine who was the longtime Director of Housing and Residence Life at my alma mater, the College of William & Mary.  In the course of our conversation I asked her about the biggest lessons she had learned over her many years working with students.  Her answer has stayed with me for decades, and it actually has a profound bearing on the work we do on culture.

This is what she told me: “I’m constantly amazed at the power of peer pressure.  I see good kids, raised in loving and supportive families, who sometimes make surprisingly bad decisions when they’re around their peers.”  We’ve all seen this many times, so why is it so striking and what’s its implication for culture? Let’s look deeper.

Is an organization only as good as its people?

You’ve probably heard the phrase that “an organization is only as good as its people.”  And while there’s a lot of truth to that phrase, it’s only part of the story.  At HPC, we have a variation on that.  We say that “an organization is only as good as its people perform.”  The key point to understand here is that the same people will perform differently in different environments.  Just as my friend discovered, we’re all significantly influenced by our peer group.

Most of us want to fit in, so we observe (consciously and unconsciously) the behaviors of those around us, and we act in a similar way.  And this isn’t only true of children.  Think of various groups of friends of yours.  When you’re with any particular group, you generally follow the norms that exist for that group.  Those implicit norms govern everything from the types of jokes it’s OK to tell, to how people get welcomed (or not) into the group, to how much people bet while playing golf. 

The exact same thing happens in organizations.  If you have a high-performing culture, where people work at the highest levels of quality, and care deeply about delivering amazing customer service, most newcomers will fall into line and do the same.  If you’ve ever been part a championship sports team or an award-winning dance troupe or an outstanding orchestra, you’ve experienced this. And, of course, the opposite is also true.  If you’re in an organization of low performers who don’t seem to care, it brings down the performance norms or expectations of everyone.

The influence of informal leaders

So how do these norms or expectations get started?  Usually they’re pretty accidental, and they’re typically established by those who assume informal leadership in the group.  You know these people.  They’re the ones with the most influential personalities.  These leaders informally establish what it’s OK to do or not to do in the group, and most people go along. Here’s why this is important:  If those leaders happen to be really positive, enthusiastic, hard-working, quality-oriented people, you’re likely to have a high-performing culture.  And if those informal leaders happen to be cynical jerks with lousy attitudes, you can imagine the culture that will emerge.  When you understand just how much influence your culture has on people’s performance, you begin to see why it’s so critical that you create your culture more intentionally.

Hiring right isn’t enough

While it’s no doubt essential to recruit and retain dedicated, high quality team members, remember that those team members are significantly influenced by their peers and the culture in which they operate.  Put the very same people in different cultures, and they’ll perform differently.  It’s not enough to simply hire great people and assume everything will work out.  Instead, it’s critical to intentionally create, nurture, and sustain a high-performing culture so that the great people you’ve hired will be encouraged to perform at their very best.

If you’d like to learn more about how to do that in a systematic way, give us a call, click the button below, or check out our updated website to find out about CultureWise, the most complete operating system for creating and driving a high-performing culture.

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