Invisible Influence and the Remote Worker

Invisible Influence and the Remote Worker

Since his first book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, became an international New York Times bestseller in 2013, Jonah Berger has been a busy guy. The Wharton marketing professor quickly became the go-to expert on an area previously shrouded in mystery (and let’s face it, hype): what makes some online content go viral, and why.

We all know and have enjoyed cat videos, Susan Boyle, and the Ice Bucket Challenge. But we likely weren’t aware of the science behind the sharing. Berger proved this point with numerous research-backed examples. Because of that, no more can bosses idly demand that marketers “make this go viral!”and no longer can marketers stare into the abyss of an open browser, wondering how, exactly?

Since then—in between research, teaching, and speaking engagements—Berger has written another bestseller: Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior. I caught up with him to learn how remote workers can employ principles from his latest book, which includes tips on everything from making better group decisions to motivating others.

Check out our conversation with Dr. Jonah Berger below about invisible influence:

1.  Colleagues’ presence can be motivating.

When it comes to the subject of influence, remote employees are particularly challenging, Berger says, simply because they’re not physically present. “It’s not as if you can drop by your colleague’s desk or office to ask how things are going, or see if they’re making enough progress,” he said.

“Further, as I talk about in Invisible Influence, others’ physical presence can be motivating,” Berger continued. “For example, cyclists ride faster if others are around. The mere presence of others can help facilitate performance—it’s called social facilitation.”

Interestingly, this motivation continues, whether you’re accomplishing a solo task around others or (to use the cycling example), biking in a group. Berger recommends going to coffee shops or coworking spaces as an option for remote workers, who can get motivated to work harder just by being around others.

Those who manage others from a distance should also think of ways to create a physical presence. Maybe it’s through photos of your team’s last retreat or conference, or an always-open Skype chat or Slack channel where your latest communication (and your profile picture) appears.

“What’s key is the sense that there’s a presence of someone, whether it’s physical, visual or auditory,” Berger explained. “It’s physiologically stimulating to the point of increasing one’s drive, such as in exercise or at work.”

2.  Proximal peers help build motivation.

Berger also examined how competition affects motivation. Social comparisons can encourage people to work harder, but it can also make people throw in the towel and give up. So when do comparisons help versus hurt?

It turns out that who we compare ourselves to matters. Berger examined tens of thousands of NBA and college basketball games and found that being behind increased performance, but only when the gap was small. Teams down a point at halftime, for example, were actually more likely to win. It was worth putting forth the effort because they knew it could change the outcome.

But what are the right comparisons in a professional setting? Who should we compare ourselves and our colleagues to, in order to encourage better performance?

Berger says that too often, managers use the winner take all approach. Think of typical ways that companies recognize success in a job, such as awarding a salesperson of the month. While this serves to underscore one person’s motivation (the winner), and perhaps those in the second- or third-runner-up positions, it’s a losing strategy.

Why? Everyone else feels far behind. “If you’re 50th out of 60 people on a larger team, incentives-based programs like this are more likely to cause you to give up,” Berger says. “You’re so far behind that catching up—or coming anywhere close to the top position—seems impossible.”

Ideally, you (as an employee) compare your performance to a peer within close proximity of your skill level and responsibilities. Managers would do well to mention proximal peers in job evaluations, by adding evidence-based commentary such as, “Your posts this quarter were excellent; however, Jessica’s blogs received more shares this month.” When a performance assessment only reviews your own work, you can’t accurately determine how you’re performing as part of a team.

3.  Remote teams can avoid groupthink.

Berger cautions that “it’s important to think about when to copy others.”

True, there are many cases where influence is a good thing. Imagine that you couldn’t choose a new car repair place or what movie to see. Life would be a lot more complicated, he says, if others’ preferences and reviews weren’t available. The amount of aggregated information we have access to helps us shortcut past what might otherwise be complicated decision-making processes.

Others, however, can also lead us astray. If you’ve ever sat in a meeting—either face-to-face or virtual—you’ve undoubtedly experienced the phenomena that is groupthink. Before you know it, a tableful of people is moving forward in a certain direction, without a whole lot of discussion, and seemingly in total agreement with one another.

“In group settings, there’s a definite tendency to follow the first person’s opinion,” Berger explains. This tendency can damage morale and stifle innovation. But it can be avoided.

“First, it’s best if you get people to vote on a matter privately, sharing their personal opinions,” he continued. “This is a better way to start because everyone will feel comfortable about sharing their own personal thoughts and won’t be swayed when hearing somebody else’s opinion.”

Remote teams and companies may appear to have an added advantage, but again, it depends on how the teams vote. “If we’re all on an instant messaging platform—but we’re still voting publicly with our names fully visible—the outcome will not be as effective as asking people to share opinions ahead of time or privately,” Berger noted.

“In my research, I’ve also seen success with setting up a ‘designated dissenter’: someone whose job is to publicly challenge assumptions,” he said. “This person points out issues to the group, and in the process, encourages others to join in the critiquing and/or brainstorming.”

4.  Familiarity makes you more likable, even from a distance.

Before speaking with Berger, I had wondered about familiarity and liking. If there is indeed a law of proximity (or propinquity) that makes people we see more often more likable, what exactly does that mean for the remote worker? Is it harder to be liked because of lower visual exposure? Why or why not?

“Part of why we like certain people is because they’re more familiar to us,” Berger explained.  

“Comparing our onsite colleagues to distributed folks we perhaps haven’t even met in person reveals some challenges. If they’re not part of a fully remote company, these distributed workers are missing out on interactions and inside jokes.”

But beyond that, you don’t want to be out of sight and out of mind. To maintain influence, Berger says, you should find ways to remind people (albeit not obnoxiously) that you’re there.

“Whether it’s reply all to an appropriate email, or to show up in physical situations like conferences or important meetings, you’re taking action to move yourself farther down the path from familiarity to liking,” Berger added. “In terms of timing, I think this matters most at the beginning of a work engagement.”

So pass along that well-timed gif, suggest a Google Hangout, or help plan an onsite meeting. Even taking small steps can help you cultivate more influence in a remote setting.

5.  Imitation is the sincerest form of…influence.

“There is some excellent research about the advantages of being a chameleon…” Berger began.

Not a literal chameleon, of course. He was shedding light on what made some people better negotiators. “One simple trick led them to be 5x more successful: subtly mimicking the physical gestures, mannerism and language of others.” This doesn’t just apply to negotiators; in a study, waiters and waitresses who mimic customers’ words and phrasing in their orders received 70 percent higher tips.

Mimicry makes people trust others more and turns strangers into friends and acquaintances into allies, Berger explains. The mimicry need not be done in person to be effective, either; imitating another person’s tone and style on a call or via email works to build influence, too.

“If you’re responding to someone and aren’t sure whether to type “Dear” or “Hi” or “Hey” as a greeting, take a look at their initial message. If it’s “Hey,” there’s your answer. Mimicking the sender’s style can create a better affiliation with the person, potentially even creating a kinship,” Berger said.

If you remain unconvinced, Berger cited research that shows that couples whose linguistic styles are similar actually date longer than those who express themselves very differently.

What does Berger know about remote work?

When asked if he has worked remotely, the author mentioned that he sometimes spends time in Durham, North Carolina, as his wife teaches on the faculty at Duke University.

“This is definitely working remotely, since my professional base is at Wharton (University of Pennsylvania),” Berger said. “I often collaborate with faculty members and doctoral students at other universities as well, including a few people I’ve never met in real life. So I have given a lot of thought to influence in this context.”

Dr. Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and bestselling author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On and Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior. Dr. Berger has spent over 15 years studying how social influence works and how it drives products and ideas to catch on. Want to learn more? Check out Berger’s website.

Readers, have you read Dr. Jonah Berger’s new book on invisible influence and the remote worker? Tell us what you think.

By Kristi DePaul | Categories: Work Remotely

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