The power of social norms

Dan Ariely, in his fascinating book, Predictably Irrational, writes about the world of market norms vs social norms.

Let’s say that I get a flat tyre on the freeway. I lent my car jack to a work colleague last week. No car jack. I am stuck.

So I reach for my mobile phone and call my friend Andrew.

Scenario 1:

“Hey, Andrew, I’m stuck and need your help!”

I explain my predicament. Without question, Andrew gets into his car and heads out to help, more than willing to do me a favour.

Now, let’s rewind that scenario and take it from the top…

Scenario 2

“Hey, Andrew, I’m stuck and need your help! …I tell you what, I will pay you $25 for your trouble!”

Andrew may still come over, but it is with a different feeling. He comes over a little grudgingly, as I have turned his act of voluntary assistance into a transaction. In this scenario, he feels somewhat inconvenienced as his time is worth much more than the paltry $25 that I had offered him. He comes to help, but with less energy than when I did not offer to pay him at all!

In scenario 1, we were living in the world of social norms. Andrew was helping me because he wanted to. In scenario 2, I had created a market norm. My behaviour had moved  it beyond a relationship to a transaction.

The concept of social norms is highly relevant to the workplace.

In some workplaces, employees say that they are here “just for the money”. To me, this is a sure sign of a low employee recognition culture. People in these organisations do not feel recognised for their efforts. Their relationship devolves into a market norm. It’s transaction. People in these companies turn up for work, but don’t tune in.

In other workplaces – and there are less of these – there is a feeling of energy. These organisations have managed to tap into the “volunteer” spirit among employees. This is a sign of organisations where people feel valued for their contributions. And, more likely, they feel a strong sense of purpose. The leaders in these organisations understand the power of social norms to get people to not only turn up, but to tune into their roles as valuable contributors.

Look around you, and you will find that some leaders in your organisation seem to find it easy to influence others to help them. There is a good chance that these leaders work in the world of social norms.  People who work under social norm-based leaders will go the extra mile because they want to, not because they have to. These people feel a sense of commitment, based on relationships.

And then you have  leaders who work in the world of market norms. They typically believe that the key motivator is money – and people are paid to do their jobs, so they should get on with them! People who work for these leaders are more likely to do so out of compliance rather than commitment. They typically do so with lower energy and drive – and with less impressive results.

Now look at your own style. Do you operate in the world of social norms or market norms? Do people feel that they are engaging in a transaction with you, or do they want to do things for you? The answer to this question might help you to understand the levels of commitment and energy in your teams.

4 thoughts on “The power of social norms

  1. Leaders have such great influence on those they lead. As a leader, employees don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.


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