Follow the Herd!

Jul 04, 2012 1 Comment by

I’m a huge fan of Freakonomics.

In their books, blogs, films and podcasts, co-authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt regularly explore what they call “the hidden side of everything”. They research cool topics like aligning incentives to motivate behavior, proving or disproving causality and digging into data related to all matters of systems theory as they are displayed – or hidden within – everyday life.

If you haven’t heard of Freakonomics, you need to check it out at:

I often listen to their podcast while I exercise and I thought one recent Freakonomics program might be of particular interest to Change Agents.

It focused on the how to recognize and leverage the “herd mentality” that groups of people often demonstrate.

Within that episode was an illustrative tale of how people responded to peer pressure as they rode a wave of change adoption.

Change Agent Tip #35: Drive the Herd

Westward Ho!   Robert Cialdini is an Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. He’s also an accomplished author in the field of human behavior and influence.  Here’s his website:

Cialdini and a team of researchers conducted a social experiment that compared potential ways to influence electricity consumption in a residential neighborhood of San Diego, California.

They placed flyers on the doors of residents asking them to reduce energy use in their homes. They distributed four different flyers with four distinct messages so they could  compare the motivational impact of each one.

Here are the four different messages:

Flyer #1: “Please reduce energy use in your home in order to reduce the expenditure of resources on the planet.”
#2: “Please reduce energy consumption in the home in order to save money at the end of the month on your own bill.”
#3: “Please reduce energy consumption in your home for future generations, so your children will have access to these resources.”
#4: “The majority of your neighbors are regularly undertaking efforts to reduce energy consumption in their homes – please follow.”

Then the team measured the actual energy use of each home at the end of the month and compared it to historical data.

It turns out the only message of the four that significantly reduced residential energy use was Option 4 – “Join the herd”.

That’s right, the herd mentality held more power to influence adaptive behavior than either the logical, thoughtful or egalitarian motivations!

The professor summed up their results in this way:

“What those around us are doing powerfully influences what we choose to do next – even though we tend to think of ourselves as being free-standing entities… In this case it was the only message that significantly reduced energy consumption in the home.”

But Wait! There’s More! There was another, equally interesting bit of data found in the same study. It turns out people think of themselves as being a bit more independent than they turn out to be…

Researchers interviewed participants in the neighborhoods where the study took place and asked them which of the four messages they felt would most influence their actions.  The first three messages scored well but the fourth message scored by far the lowest number of responses!

In other words, at the individual level, people denied the influencing power of the herd mentality. They indicated it would have minimal impact on their expected behavior. Even so, it turned out to be the strongest motivator of their demonstrated behavior.

Is There Hope For the Herd?  So how can Change Agents leverage the unsettling proposition that our stakeholders are – at least at some level – herd animals?

How can we not only account for the potential negative effects of the herd mentality, but take advantage of it to make our change even more successful?

Five Tips For Guiding a Herd Through Change

1. Get to Know Big Mo: Embrace the power of momentum. As you build support for your change, don’t forget to gather feedback from those who have already adapted and use that feedback to influence those who have yet to convert.

Communicate the progress of your change and use specific, personal examples to show that the herd is moving in the direction of adopting your change.

2. Don’t Just Listen With “Happy Ears”: Don’t simply count on stakeholders to “do the right thing”. They might tell you “We’re behind you all the way” while actually watching their peers for signs of which way support for the change will break.

This familiar cowpoke may not have invented the phase “Trust But Verify“, but he sure used it on a few political cattle drives…

Find out what they are really thinking by asking them directly through surveys, site visits and good old fashion human conversations.

3. Trust – But Verify: Always circle back and measure change adoption. Verify that the words of your stakeholders match the adaptive actions you were looking for. Ensure that the new, desired behaviors are truly taking place.

If your change involves the use of a new process, go back and measure that use. If it involves the abandonment of an old, inefficient way of doing things, circle around to verify that a few stray cattle aren’t slipping back into old habits.

4. Hope is Not a Strategy: Don’t wait and hope people will blindly join the herd. Help individuals prepare for the change by answering their most pressing concerns. Don’t allow unfounded, negative rumors to go unaddressed.

Go find out what’s being said about the change among the various groups in your stakeholder map and get accurate information out into the community to combat fears.

5. Give ‘Em A Choice: Finally, it sounds like human beings may sometimes think of themselves as being more independent in their actions than they truly are. Leverage this perception by considering ways you can make adoption a choice versus something that’s being forced upon your stakeholders.

For example; lay out the rationale for your change and guide people through the thought process you followed as you adapted. Describe how you made the decision you’re now asking them to make.

Make it clear that the decision is still theirs, even if the options are not completely tailorable. (See my last two posts for more help with what I call “negative changes” and situations where stakeholders have little or no say…)

Summary: As much as people would like to deny it, the herd mentality is real. Change Agents should leverage it to improve their results. I’m not implying that this should be your primary method of encouraging adoption.

I’m only suggesting that you be aware of it & make the most of it. Watch for which direction the herd is running – especially if it’s breaking one way or another – so you can leverage any positive flow and counteract any potential negative flow before it sends your stakeholders too far afield.

– Steve

Questions for Chatter:

  1. How can “following the herd” be a very risky thing for the stakeholders of change?
  2. Have you listened to the Freakonomics podcast? If so, what topics have most interested you?


Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

One Response to “Follow the Herd!”

  1. December 2012 Management Journey Carnival says:

    […] Change agents would do well to follow the herd if they want to effect meaningful change in organizations.  Follow the herd? That can’t be right, can it? It turns out that this is an important strategy (with a twist) for effecting change. Steve Chihos of The Big Rocks of Change explains further in his article, Follow the Herd. —Change […]

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