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0220 ehs Mchange Management 5e46d8bbe183a

Social Proof: How Force Multiplication Can Change Safety Behavior

Feb. 17, 2020
Building a guiding coalition of effective people will help you encourage and reinforce a safety culture.

In the fast-paced manufacturing world, change is inevitable and safety professionals need all of the tricks and tools available to keep up. If your facilities are like mine, your safety department is not overstaffed, but instead is running lean and mean, which requires resourcefulness to be effective and successful.

My father, who was regarded as a great leader in his work and civic activities, taught me his leadership philosophy: “A good leader gets people to do what needs to be done without demanding it and makes them think they made the decisions by themselves.” My company has learned to meet the challenges at our facilities as well as satisfy my father’s definition of leadership by using a tool called “Social Proof.”

The Social Proof Theory, popularized by psychologist Robert Cialdini, maintains that a person who does not know what the proper behavior for a certain situation is will imitate what people are doing around them. The group acts as a model of expected behavior. Since this theory emphasizes the importance of social influence on our own behavior, it is also called the “Informational Social Influence Theory.”

Social Proof is a tool used extensively in advertising and television. Laugh tracks are a known, common way to influence people to laugh as the track presents to the viewer the idea that all of those people think it’s funny and perhaps we should also think it so. In advertising, think about surfing the Internet to find your next prized possession. You see many 4-star reviews for a certain item and only 1 star for a competitive item. Perhaps if it’s a coin toss you will be swayed by the 4-star review.

I will not resort to the depths of Drs. Freud or Jung nor am I trying to insinuate workers are similar to farm animals, but humans have a tendency to subconsciously exhibit certain herd characteristics and dynamics similar to animals. Herd animals traditionally stay in a group for safety and other benefits. We as humans find the safety and acceptance of a group reassuring.

A query of “Social Proof” or “Social Influence” on YouTube provides a number of entertaining videos of insiders exhibiting certain behaviors and test subjects mimicking those behaviors in a short time period to meet what they understand to be the social norms around them. Especially entertaining is a video from the old “Candid Camera” show (Prudential: Everybody’s Doing It) that illustrates the ability to influence people in an elevator in a short period of time.

You can even try your own Social Proof experiment. As you walk down the street of your favorite city, stop and look up. If you’re with other people get the whole group to stop and look up. Soon other passersby will be looking up. If there are enough people out on the street you may soon have hundreds scanning the sky.


In times past, the methodology for making change was to write a 3,000-word, 10-page document or procedure, make everyone sign off on it, and then become an enforcer. Using a commonly-used hierarchy of learning, it is understood that the average person only retains about 10% of what they read, so the chances of failure are at 90% or greater. People remember 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see and 50% of what they see and hear. With today’s workforce so very dependent on technology and social platforms, communication needs to be geared to something more socially accepted. Where long-winded word documents might have been the norm in the past, the workforce has been conditioned to Facebook-length paragraphs, 140-character tweets and conformance to some social group or charter. (Note: There are some great philosophies available regarding change management. I rely on John Kotter of Harvard Business School, regarded by many as the authority on leadership and change and his 8-step program.)

Using a combination of the concepts we developed a plan. Recently our company identified the need to have a policy requiring safety glasses. Generally such changes result in grumbling and discontent and require extensive coercion to make the change a reality.

While working with my employee safety committee I provided a learning session on Social Proof and challenged them to try an experiment. Using step 2 of John Kotter’s 8-step process—building a guiding coalition of effective people—we identified a group of volunteers to start wearing safety glasses but make no mention of the coming requirements. The group consisted of 10 people from a group of production workers that numbered nearly 100. Within the first week approximately 10 more people requested a pair of safety glasses. Within one month approximately 50% of the employees were wearing safety glasses and I had not yet released a mandated policy. At the time of implementation 95% of my employees were wearing safety glasses voluntarily. The last 5% was easy. We were able to combine the message and control what people saw and heard and easily reinforced the correct behavior.

“Perhaps it was luck or something else,” you say. Here’s another example. Certain tasks done by some of our employees require the building of cardboard boxes. The friction of the repetitive task routinely results in blisters. We offered a protective glove that was a dull gray and not very visible. Many complained that they were uncomfortable and unsurprisingly there were very few takers. We identified a new glove that was similar in construction but was fluorescent yellow. We identified a group of four box builders to wear the gloves. By the end of the day the number was at eight. Now when you walk into the production facility you can visually see the gloves at work across the facility. To this date there is no requirement or mandate to wear them. Again we leveraged the message with group behavior and visibility.


It is evident that Social Proof is a valuable tool to have available. It is important to utilize some additional methodology to help manage your changes and make them sustainable. I mentioned the Kotter methodology as it has been very helpful to me. It is also helpful to understand the hierarchy of learning and combine the visual and audio messages together to realize higher retention.

A simple warning, though. It is important while using this tool to have a trustworthy group to help establish the desired behavior and try to influence limited sectors of your work population. As you make the influences on more and more people, you can incrementally influence even larger employee groups. Because of the subconscious urge to feel safe in a large group and adapt to their behaviors, Social Proof can work in the opposite way. If the bad behavior is more prevalent than your control group, you can expect the safe behavior would be to follow the undesirable tendencies of the larger group. 

About the Author

Donald Hossli

Donald Hossli-is corporate safety manager with Red Monkey Foods (, a provider of private label spices and seasonings.

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