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The Link Between Peer Pressure and Productivity

Kate Lorenz, Editor

You probably thought you left peer pressure behind when you graduated from high school. But a new study suggests that adults in the workforce are just as prone to the influence of their co-workers as kids are in the school yard. Alexandre Mas and Enrico Moretti, professors at the University of California, Berkeley, studied the work habits of 370 supermarket cashiers over two years and found when average cashiers worked near a cashier who was 10 percent faster, these cashiers increased their productivity by 1.7 percent. Why did the average cashier have an increase in output? Mas and Moretti believe that no one wants to be labeled a slacker, so when employees are working closely with a high achiever, they will shape up and improve their game. This peer effect is the same peer pressure kids face everyday in schools. The only difference is this influence caused a positive behavior. Peer Potency “This is a brilliant study,” says Lyssa Menard, Ph.D., of the Wellness Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Assistant Professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Northwestern University in Chicago. “It’s interesting because currently the primary ways companies address productivity is through different management styles.” By contrast, this study shows how much influence co-workers can have on each other’s productivity. And the results are even more astounding when you consider no monetary rewards or other perks were attached to the cashiers’ work rates. While the strategy Mas and Moretti used did increase overall productivity, it most likely is not a blanket solution that can be applied to all businesses across all industries. There are many factors that can influence the outcomes of such an arrangement. But the idea of using peer pressure to positively influence performance could have huge ramifications in the average workforce. “There’s no doubt peer effects are strong,” Dr. Menard says. “Peer pressure can be a great thing if they promote prosocial behaviors.” Slacker or Star? If you are a diligent employee working with a team of co-workers on a particular project, be aware that your influence could possibly impact the success of the project in the long run. “In general, people actually want to be liked by their peers,” Dr. Menard says. “So most people don’t want to be perceived as the slacker.” If you’re the office deadbeat, you better hitch yourself to a rising star and learn all you can. Many companies today are examining the output of their workforce and withholding annual pay increases if performance isn’t up to snuff. It’s no longer a given that you will receive a minimum cost-of-living increase. In fact you might even be let go. But, Dr. Menard warns, sometimes shirkers may step up their productivity as long as their peers are watching. But when left to their own devices, these slouches will go back to loafing. Assembling the right team to tackle a workplace task can lead to great rewards for all involved. When at least one person on the team has what Menard refers to as “contagious enthusiasm,” the group can work together furiously and accomplish some terrific things. This contagious enthusiasm is often witnessed at many start-up companies and led to many launches during the dot-com heyday. “One person’s drive and passion becomes so contagious that others follow,” she says.

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