Maryland Smith Research / May 13, 2021

Want To Change Behaviors At Your Organization? Use Peer Pressure.

Top-Down Change Works Best When Combined With Peer Encouragement

Want To Change Behaviors At Your Organization? Use Peer Pressure.

When organizations make changes, leaders often push them down through the ranks. But they should also use peer influence, finds new research from Maryland Smith. When employees encourage each other to adopt the changes, they actually last.

Subra Tangirala, the Dean’s Professor of Management, worked with Smith PhDs Michael R. Parke, now at the University of Pennsylvania, and Insiya Hussain, now at the University of Texas at Austin, on the research in the Journal of Applied Psychology. They tested a new theory on how organizations can use behavioral field inventions to increase employees’ organizational citizenship, such as helping each other and speaking up with ideas or criticisms.

The researchers worked with a food processing company that packages items for grocery stores – think bagged spinach and pre-chopped fruit salads. The processing is all done in subzero temperatures to keep the food fresh, and comes with the concerns of working with food and dealing with protective equipment for employees, says Tangirala. “Food packaging is a very difficult work environment for employees.”

“We wanted employees to engage in more citizenship behaviors – speaking up more, helping each other – because it makes life easier for them on the shop floor,” Tangirala says.

First, the researchers had managers encourage specific citizenship behaviors. Then they had teams hold daily meetings to talk through the behaviors. And they passed out cards that highlighted the behaviors employees should engage in. The teams talked about the behaviors every day.

In another intervention, the researchers told employees to talk to each other and reinforce the citizenship values, rather than having supervisors do it. 

“We found that whenever supervisors enforced these kinds of changes, people’s behaviors immediately changed because supervisors are in a position of power and as soon as they say something, people listen,” Tangirala says. “But for sustained change in behaviors, you need the employees also to encourage each other. Without employee encouragement, you don’t get sustained change.”

Tangirala says human nature reveals why.

“We are social beings and we are affected both by leaders and also by people around us,” says Tangirala. “When peers tell us, we don’t need to do it immediately, but they are the ones that can reinforce the norms.”

Organizations can use the research findings when making changes, says Tangirala.

“When you push initiatives through managers, you may get immediate change with the top-down approach. But to create sustained change, you need to also rely on peer-to-peer exchanges.”

Read the research, “Creating Organizational Citizens: How and When Supervisor- Versus Peer-Led Role Interventions Change Organizational Citizenship Behavior,” in the Journal of Applied Psychology.


Media Contact

Greg Muraski
Media Relations Manager
301-892-0973 Mobile 

Get Smith Brain Trust Delivered To Your Inbox Every Week

Business moves fast in the 21st century. Stay one step ahead with bite-sized business insights from the Smith School's world-class faculty.

Subscribe Now

Read More Research

Back to Top