Using Social Ties to Lead Change Efforts

Credit: istockphoto.com/Prostock-Studio

by Maya Townsend

It’s 1981 and I want nothing more than to own a pair of designer Jordache jeans. My mother thinks they’re too expensive. “But,” I complain, “All of my friends have them.” Her response: “If all of your friends were jumping off a cliff, would you jump too?”

That was my first lesson in the importance of resisting peer pressure. (It didn’t stick, by the way. I eventually wore down my mother. In my jeans, I thought I was the coolest kid in town.)

My views on peer pressure are a little more nuanced today than it was in 1981. Today, I believe that social pressure has power that can be used for good. It especially has power in the work world where savvy leaders can use social momentum and support to help implement organization change.

There are three basic ways to influence change, according to the excellent MIT Sloan Management Review article”How to Have Influence.” Those three ways are individual, social, and structural.

Most people are familiar with the individual level. At this level, leaders help people link the change to the organization’s mission and values by talking publicly about the impact and benefits of the new way. They provide training and coaching to help people learn the skills needed to be successful. In short, they seek to increase people’s motivation and ability to change.

The structural level is also familiar. At this level, leaders use rewards to reinforce change. For example, a performance review might include an evaluation of an employee’s use of a new process or bonuses might be partially dependent on a team’s ability to implement a new system.

The other important aspect of structural influence deals with people’s ability to adopt the new way of doing things. If the computer system, office layout, and wall charts all support the old quality control process, for example, people will continue to use the same system. So, we phase out the old software, change physical layouts, and replace the old charts with the new. Again, these are all well-trodden activities that leaders use to support change.

The untapped power of social ties

The social level provides the venue for more subtle and powerful ways to influence change. For example, years ago I worked for an insurance company. A new recognition system had been developed whereby employees could send cards when someone displayed the organization’s values. After receiving five cards, employees could cash them in for a gift card.

When I first heard about the cards, it barely made a dent. Yawn: another HR initiative that didn’t mean anything to me. Later, I was debriefing a piece of work that a co-worker and I had done together. During our conversation, we discussed how one individual had gone out of his way to support our work. My co-worker whipped out a recognition card and sent him one on the spot. That piqued my interest.

Several weeks later, I noticed that my cube mate’s bulletin board was almost completely filled by recognition cards she had received. That activated my competitive streak. Then a friend treated me to lunch with the gift card she had received after cashing in her five recognition cards. And I was sold. I wanted to be able to treat her to lunch just as she had treated me. I became a recognition card convert.

This is a simple example, but it illustrates exactly how social ties can provide the momentum and support people need to change.

How to use social momentum and support for change leadership

To create social momentum and support, consider:

  • Identifying informal leaders and involving them early in the process to build their commitment to change.
  • Training informal leaders first so they can lead the way for their peers.
  • Encouraging leaders—formal and informal—to talk about how they use the program.
  • Giving informal leaders visible symbols of the new program that attract people’s curiosity and interest.
  • Freeing up informal leaders to spend more time advocating for or using the new system.

Using these techniques will help leaders influence change. Watch out, though. Your kids might also use them in inventive and savvy ways to get you to buy them those designer jeans.

About the author / Maya Townsend is founder and lead consultant at Partnering Resources, helps individuals, teams, and organizations thrive in our networked world. She uses knowledge of the art and science of networks to help leaders create resilient strategy, find opportunities in complex business ecosystems, and influence change. Her clients include Fortune 500, mid-sized, emerging, and nonprofit organizations, such as Biogen, Commongood Careers, Intel, Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, MIT, NW Chocolate Festival, and Thomson Reuters. Townsend is co-editor of <em>Handbook for Strategic HR: Best Practices in Organization Development</em> from the OD Network (AMACOM, 11/2012). Her articles have been published in strategy + business, People &amp; Strategy, CIO, Nonprofit Quarterly, Talent Management, and other outlets. A former blogger for Inc, American Management Association, and Future of Work Enabled, Townsend’s <a href=”http://partneringresources.com/blog”>company blog</a> was recognized as “Best of the Best” by Alltop.

Maya will present the session “Our organizations are networks: Why don’t we use them for communication and leadership?” at the 2020 virtual World Conference.

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