Navigating workplace dynamics can be tough. You have to make the right decisions and avoid the wrong ones, motivate yourself (and others) to achieve common goals, and make all of this work without ruffling anyone feathers. Tough stuff.

But as I talk about in Invisible Influence, there’s a simple, subtle tool that can help us do all this better: social influence. We think our actions are driven by our own thoughts and preferences, but we’re wrong.

Peers have a huge impact on everything we do, from the day-to-day decisions we make to the careers we follow.

Below are three common workplace challenges: being more influential, making better group decisions, and motivating ourselves and others, and some simple ways social influence can help us do them better. Like a Jedi would. 

How to Be More Influential

1. Be a chameleon.

Trying to convert a job interview or convince a client? Subtly imitating the language, behavior, or facial expressions of other eases interactions. Mimicry increases liking, trust, and affiliation. It makes negotiators five times more likely to reach an agreement and increases waiters’ tips by 70%. So don’t just listen; emulate. If an interviewer leans back on their chair and crosses their legs, do the same. If a client starts emails with “Hey” instead of “Dear,” adopt that language. Subtle shifts can deepen social bonds and turn strangers into allies. 

2. Make Consensus Visible.

In many group decision making contexts, people are looking to others to figure out what to do. So to sway the group your way, build consensus for your side and make that support easily observable. Nobody likes waiting in line, yet people often flock to restaurants or attractions that have lines out the door. Why? Because they assume if others are doing something it must be good. So build your own virtual line of backers. Find people who already agree with you, and use their support to convince those on the fence. Start with the easiest to persuade and build from there. Let the next person know that the first person already supports it. The more people know others support you, the easier it will be to convince them.

How to Make Better Group Decisions

Along those lines though, workplace decisions often suffer from groupthink, where conformity and the desire for intragroup harmony lead groups to make worse decisions. Watch a committee debate who to hire or whether to adopt a new strategy, and you’ll notice that whomever goes first often has a big impact on the outcome. Group members who were on the fence tend to agree, and unless someone has strong objections, they tend to keep their opposition to themselves. Crowds are only wise when everyone chips in their individual thoughts and information. So how do we encourage opposing voices to speak up?

1. Vote Privately.

Using written ballots rather than a show of hands encourages independence. Anonymous ballots makes people feel even freer to speak their mind. Even asking people to write down their preliminary opinion before the meeting can help. It’s a small action, but having a written record before interacting with others makes it harder to stray from one’s convictions, and increases the chance that diverse viewpoints will be heard.

2. Pick A Designated Dissenter.

Another way to avoid groupthink is to encourage dissent. This is often tough in practice (no one wants to seem like they’re always being a Negative Nelly), so make someone the Designated Dissenter. Someone whose job for that particular meeting is to be a dissenting voice. Providing counterpoints to arguments being raised, or bringing up evidence that might contradict the prevailing wisdom. People may not agree with everything they say, but the mere fact that there is dissent will encourage them to speak up and raise their own concerns

How to Motivate Ourselves—and Others

Last, but not least, is the challenge of motivating people. How can we boost our sales numbers or increase our performance? Get our teams to put in extra hours to hit that big deadline?

1. Shrink the Comparison Set.

Peer comparisons can be helpful, but too often workplaces use a winner take all model. The person who sells the most wins an award or the customer service rep with the highest rating gets employee of the month. While this strategy motivates people who have a shot at winning it all, it can have the opposite effect on everyone else. People who see no chance of winning may get demotivated and give up. Instead, shrink the comparison set. Break larger groups into smaller ones, for example, based on prior performance. This makes doing as well or better than other people more attainable.

2. Pick the Right Social Comparisons

When using peer comparisons, pick someone else that is just slightly better. Profession basketball teams down by one at halftime are more likely to win, and political candidates receive more donations when their supporters think they are slightly behind in the polls. Most people like to win, rather than lose, and being behind is particularly motivating when the chance of winning seems likely. Just push a little harder and you’re there. So pick comparisons that make you (or others) feel slightly behind. If you’re trying to increase your own performance, pick a colleague whose doing slightly better as a comparison standard. If you’re trying to motivate a sales team, compare their performance to a competitor who is slightly (but not too far) ahead. Seeing oneself as behind, by a little, will boost motivation and performance. 

Where do you see social influence at work in the workplace or your personal life? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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  • Jonah Berger

    Wharton Professor, Bestselling Author, International Keynote Speaker, Consultant