Increasing Buy-In with Social Proof

In addition to providing people with the reason or why behind the strategy, you can also gain a greater level of commitment to the strategy by using social proof. The principle of social proof explains that someone is more likely to behave in a way that is similar to how they see others behave.27 A common manifestation of this principle in the corporate world can be observed at meetings. If the leaders in an organization are continually 10-15 minutes late for meetings, their people begin to lose regard for the meeting start time as well. Pretty soon, the culture reflects this lack of punctuality and the phrase “fashionably late” becomes the modus operandi.

When it comes to strategy, social proof can be a powerful influence. When employees see their leader fully engaged and committed to a strategy, it demonstrates to them that it isn’t another flavor-of-the-month initiative. A leader who takes the time to meet with employees in small groups to discuss strategic direction, translates strategy into concrete actions for those groups, and actively listens to them for new ideas demonstrates a sincere interest in their overall success.

As strategy is built around how one allocates their resources, it’s important to be aware of how you as a leader are investing your resources, especially time. Your investment behaviors will be a strong driver of how others invest their resources. Declaring a tailored solutions-oriented strategy built around customer intimacy and then lacking the discipline to not check e-mail during internal meetings in which customers are being discussed reeks of hypocrisy. Driving strategies to forge product leadership positions in the market and then cutting the budget for professional development as soon as there’s a dip in revenues also snuffs out the power of social proof. A leader’s words can move people to action, but a leader’s actions can move people to commitment.

One of the challenges leaders face in getting their people to commit to a strategy is in the nature of strategy itself. A sound strategy declares trade-offs, resulting in change and new direction. A recent study on creativity showed that people automatically assume that a novel idea is not reliable or practical and likely contains errors.28 New strategies are instantly working against a tide of doubt, not to mention people’s reluctance to change. Therefore, another application of the principle of social proof is to provide people with evidence that the chosen strategy provides the best course of action. Since people look to others for guidance on how they should act, giving employees examples or testimonials can be a powerful way to influence. Finding examples of other brands within the company or other companies outside the industry that were in a similar situation and succeeded with a similar strategic approach can be affirming. If your team finds itself entering a recently deregulated market as a challenger to several established incumbents, it may be helpful to explain how a company like Southwest Airlines found itself in a similar situation and made unique trade-offs to forge a niche position that led to decades of profitable growth.

The use of testimonials has a long track record of success influencing behavior. While they can range from the ridiculous late-night infomercials to the weighty support of a presidential candidate, a testimonial represents a written or spoken statement of support for a person, product, or service. Testimonials can assist in the effective implementation of strategy through the ongoing strategy dialogue process. As you have periodic strategy conversations with colleagues, be sure to record success stories and anecdotes that reflect the positive impact the strategy is having in driving customer value. A powerful technique is to video record these success stories and best practices in implementing strategy and share them internally in town-hall meetings, presentations, and intranets. Since one of the biggest obstacles to effective strategy execution is overcoming silos between different functional areas or geographic locations, the opportunity for colleagues to see and hear directly from their counterparts, either live or through video, can give them further social proof that the strategy is worthy of their commitment.

Another method for employing the power of social proof is to share pictures of success from other divisions, brands, areas, or managers that have fully adopted a strategy. Simply compare and contrast the strategies and results of two groups. If one group, location, or branch, has committed to the strategy and generated improved results while another group wedded to the old approach hasn’t, graphically show these different approaches and their corresponding results in a memorable way. For instance, showing a picture of a rugged off-road jeep climbing over boulders with “7 percent gain in operating margins” as the caption can illustrate the success of a team that has followed the new strategic direction despite lots of obstacles and achieved success. Then, contrast it with picture of a 1970s station wagon driving by a 25 miles per hour speed limit sign with the caption “0 percent improvement in operating margins” to represent the teams not yet committed to the new strategy. Research shows that people generally understand things better when they see those things in comparison to something else, instead of in isola- tion.29 Contrast breeds clarity.

In seeking to influence others to commit to a strategy, a leader can focus energy solely on those they’re attempting to persuade. However, this overlooks an important persuasive tool, the environment. Sometimes, simply changing physical things in people’s environment can alter their mindset or behavior. One study showed that people attending a movie right after lunch were influenced to eat different amounts of popcorn based purely on the size of the bucket they were given. Despite just having finished lunch, the researchers found that people who were given large buckets of popcorn ate 53 percent more than those with smaller buckets.30 CEO Jeff Bezos is reported to occasionally leave one chair open at a conference table to represent their customer.31 By changing an element in their physical environment—in this case adding an empty chair—Bezos has created another influence to demonstrate to employees the importance of the customer in the development and execution of their strategies. He says, “We innovate by starting with the customer and working backwards. That becomes the touchstone for how we invent.”32 Concepts change thinking and tools change behavior. Finding ways to create physical reminders in your manager’s environment on the important elements of the strategy is crucial to sustaining momentum throughout the year.

As you hone your strategy and communicate it with others in the organization, it’s important to bring it to a personal level. One of the reasons strategic planning has become a mind-numbingly, ambiguous exercise is because it’s not translated to the individual level. Managers work to feed a PowerPoint deck with information and data that they themselves won’t use after the dog-and-pony show presentation is concluded. A sociology study on the donation behaviors of individuals sheds some light on why this might occur. The study showed that people are more willing to donate money to help a single starving African child than to help many starving children. Interestingly, the researcher also found that contributions dropped dramatically when the individual child’s picture was accompanied by a statistical summary of the large number of needy children like her in other countries.33 Similarly, when we see a specific, individualized issue, we are more likely to respond to it. When we’re faced with a general blob of information, we tend to tune it out. The lesson for leaders: Tailor the meaning of the strategy to your audience and how it relates specifically to them and what they’re doing on a daily basis. As Mother Teresa said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

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