Scientific Proof That Your Peers Make You Better

Do as others make you think you should do.

Peer pressure — that much-maligned social force we’re always telling kids not to give in to — is about to get a reputation boost. According to research from Harvard Business School professor Susanna Gallani, peer pressure leads to longer-lasting changes in the way you work than a monetary incentive does.

Gallani, who wrote about her study in the Harvard Business Review, researched hand-washing habits at a California hospital. The hospital introduced a 90-day hand-hygiene improvement initiative and told employees they would receive a one-time bonus of $1,200 if the team reached target performance levels.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Gallani compared the employees working towards a bonus to physicians, who, under California law, are not hospital employees. While doctors’ performance was still measured against the overall hospital goal, they weren’t eligible for a bonus and were encouraged in more creative ways instead: Celebratory emails or “love notes” posting their names on the wall for everyone to see, or a reminder (depending on how well they were doing) of how important the collective goal was.

The study found that most employees working towards a bonus improved their hand hygiene during the 90-day period, but when the period ended, they reverted to levels of performance “as low or worse than prior to the initiative,” as Gallini says. It took longer for physicians to improve their hand hygiene, but the changes stuck: Gallani writes that among doctors, “peer pressure techniques generated a change in organizational behavior” that lasted after the initiative — and the hospital wide-goal — had passed.

These findings make sense: If the proverbial carrot you’re chasing disappears when you reach your goal, you probably won’t want to keep running just because. But if everyone around you is doing it (and you’re being publicly praised for following suit, which we know impacts performance), you might be more inclined to keep going.

Gallani emphasizes that the findings shouldn’t be a deterrent to using monetary incentives in the workplace. Rather, bonuses might be best used as a catalyst to get the program running, not as an end-all-be-all. She adds that the findings are applicable to any work environment where behavior changes can improve performance. So while cash may be part of the solution, to make truly lasting changes, encouraging collaboration and just a bit of peer pressure might do the trick.

Read more on HBR.