Peer Pressure, Conformity and Your Safety Culture


We are social creatures. We desire and attempt to maintain relationships wherever we are. In other words, we try to fit in with other people. This is true whether we are talking about family, work or just out in public with people we don’t know. The research is pretty clear….our decisions and actions are impacted by the people around us. Take the classic research of Solomon Asch (1955; 1956) which demonstrates the power of groups (normative influence) on our decision making. The experimental task was simple….select which one of three comparison lines match the standard where one line was obviously longer and one obviously shorter. The catch was that the experimental subject was grouped with varying numbers of confederates who would select an obviously wrong answer. The results were consistent….participants were likely to go along with the group even when the answers were obviously wrong and this conformity increased as group size increased. Additional research by Asch demonstrated that conformity decreases by approximately 25% with just one dissenter, suggesting that people want to make the correct decision and they don’t need a lot of support from group members to do so. The implication is that people tend to conform to group norms if everyone agrees, but are willing to dissent if there is any sort of disagreement among group members. The reason people are willing to go along with a group even when the decision is obviously wrong is because of fear of rejection and research provides ample evidence that rejection is a very common result of dissension with group decisions (see Tata, et al, 1996). There is a second reason that people go along with the group in addition to the desire to be liked and to fit in (normative influence). Research demonstrates that we go along with the group on many occasions because we think the group knows more about the correct decision than we do (informational influence). Two types of situations produce informational influence: (1) ambiguous situations in which a decision is difficult, and (2) crisis situations in which people don’t have time to really think for themselves. While (2) is pretty uncommon, (1) is very common in the workplace, especially with new hires. Less experienced employees don’t want to be rejected by the group, but additionally don’t have the experience to make thoughtful decisions when faced with situations that they have not encountered before. This is especially true when they are observing more experienced employees who don’t view the situation as ambiguous at all and don’t seem to hesitate when making a decision, even when the decision leads to an unsafe action. These types of decisions become automatic….just the way we do it around here. While peer pressure can be a bad thing if it leads to undesired behavior, it can also be a “good” thing if it leads to positive, safe, desired behavior. Understanding the power of peer pressure and the accepted, automatic nature of responding within an organization can help you create a safety culture where peer pressure leads to safe performance and a decrease in undesired behaviors and resulting incidents.

Is Dissent in the Workplace Good for Results?

We are inclined to conform to what we believe the people around us expect and value.  This has been demonstrated by decades of research into social conformity dating back to the Solomon Asch Line studies in the early 1950’s.  The crux of this research is that when in small groups, we tend to acquiesce (conform) to the view of the group even if it is not our natural view to begin with.  Think about how this would impact team decision making.  When the majority have one view, even when we have a different view, we are less likely to express that view because dissenters are labeled trouble-makers and most of us don’t want to be trouble-makers. Dissent does, however, serve some very important functions.

1.  Dissent boosts group creativity

While conformity results in fewer variations, creativity thrives on a variety of ideas.

2.  Dissent can prevent failures

We conform to what we *believe* others expect and value, but sometimes people are doing things simply because they aren't aware of the possible negative consequences.

For example, in the safety arena, dissent (which we call ‘Intervention’) helps to prevent undesired consequences by stopping an unsafe behavior.  Imagine that you see two co-workers put a tool into service that you see is compromised.  Speaking up could mean the difference between operations as normal and a catastrophic event.  Unfortunately, the group norm is to “keep quiet”, so you conform and don’t speak up and the tool goes into service.

The key to capitalizing on dissent is to do it right.  If you go about it with a critical tone, unflappable confidence that you are right, or punitive intent, not only will it probably do more harm than good, but you are sure to end up with that ‘trouble-maker’ label.