Enjoying Your Work
People often make different decisions when they are surrounded by others
Imagine this experience. People volunteer for a research study on the perception of learning materials. They are told that they will be examining various ways of presenting information and that they will give their opinions on which ways are clear and which are not.
These materials will include visual presentations on chalkboards, overhead transparencies, and power point slides. The importance of the study is emphasized. Researchers explain that in this fast-moving world, people must learn about new technologies very quickly or else their job skills will become outdated. Finding effective ways of presenting information in workplace training sessions is essential.
The people who volunteer for the study enter a room. There are eight participants, and they sit in a single row toward the front of a classroom. On a chalkboard they see one line on the left of the board and eight lines on the right. The researcher says, "To begin the study, I need to know how big the material presented on the chalkboard needs to be so that everyone can see it clearly. Could you tell me which of the lines on the right hand side of the chalkboard is the same size as the single line on the left?"
People then give their answers. There is one person whose answers are of interest to the researchers. This is the seventh person in the row. Before he answers, six people give their answer concerning the length of the lines. From the seventh person's point of view, the first six are wrong. They are clearly making a mistake when they give their report concerning the equal size of lines on the left and right hand sides of the chalkboard.
It is now time for the seventh person to give his response. What does he do? Does he report what he thinks is the correct answer, or does he go along with the incorrect answer given by the first six respondents?
As first reported by the University of Pennsylvania's Solomon Asch, many people set aside their own correct response and report the incorrect answer given by the first six respondents. This study, which has been widely replicated, shows the power of groups on the behavior of individuals. Groups set norms, or shared standards of acceptable behavior. If people go against group norms and become nonconformists, there can be sanctions.
Nonconformists are often shunned by others. They find themselves uninvited to social gatherings. They can be treated by others as odd or weird. In the workplace, nonconformists find that they are ignorant of information passed along through grapevines since nobody talks to them regularly.
People work hard at avoiding the status of social pariahs by attending to the standards that are established by their groups. They work hard to fit in as best they can so that they do not become social deviants and do not become the targets of gossip. The need to "fit in" and to avoid social ostracism is very strong.
Even though the seventh person in the perception study was not previously acquainted with any of the first six respondents, he may have gone along with the group so that he would not be seen as odd, lolo, or deviant.
Even when people go against the group and give the correct answer, they are clearly upset that they are disagreeing with six other people. While giving their correct answer they fidget, look at the others to see their reactions, and show discomfort in their facial expressions.
This research shows the power of group norms. In the workplace, employees observe the behavior of coworkers and are attentive to norms concerning productivity, work loads, and willingness to take on extra assignments.
Managers who want to see changes such as increased productivity or greater use of technology are wise to examine people's work affiliations. Many times, managers need to change group norms if they want to introduce workplaces changes.
The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Given the amount of time people spend at work, job satisfaction should ideally be high and it should contribute to general life happiness. Enjoyment can increase as people learn more about workplace psychology, communication, and group influences.
is a professor in the College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the College Relations Office at firstname.lastname@example.org