How unions can harness the power of social proof

October 29, 2011

There’s a fantastic TED video by Derek Sivers that shows the power of social proof (embedded below).

The video is called “How to Start a Movement” – it shows a shirtless man dancing at a festival. Dancing alone, he looks completely deranged. After a moment however, someone joins him. This is the start of the movement — the essence of which is the arrival of the first follower. The first follower makes it acceptable to follow the leader, who, without followers, is just a crazy person dancing by himself. The video is very sweet and well worth watching (it only goes for three minutes).

Social proof is the phenomenon that people will do what they see other people doing. The TED video is a good example of this. It is especially useful in large social settings where the accepted course of action may not be widely known, and where people are open to suggestion.

Unions unconsciously rely on social proof all the time. One of the main goals for union organising is to achieve a high enough density of membership that joining the union is the “normal” thing to do, and non-members are exceptions in the workplace.

A common element to this is unions use of stickers, hats, tshirts and other merchandise, given or sold to members to wear and display at work.

I used to be very skeptical about union merchandise, regarding it largely as a waste of money. However, over the last 12 months, I have had a 180 turn in my views. Used with the ideas of social proof and creating social norms, union merchandise is a powerful tool.

Because of availability bias, unions can use merchandise in workplaces with relatively low density to create the impression of a greater membership, thereby changing social norms. Merchandise, union posters (which are positive in message) and other collateral help create a union “branded workplace” — in other words, creates social proof.

So next time you’re ordering your union’s stock of lanyards, hats, t-shirts or stickers, keep this in mind.

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