Brainwashing or Influence?

Linda Henman

Brainwashing or Influence?

Espoused beliefs reflect those perceptions that an organization’s leaders consider “correct.” Over time, members of an organization learn that certain beliefs work to reduce uncertainty, so these beliefs gradually develop into an articulated set of norms and operational rules of behavior that serve as a guide for dealing with ambiguity or difficult events.  As new members join the organization, others influence them through education about these beliefs.

Brainwashing, on the other hand, involves thought reform—the impairment of autonomy, a disruption of affiliations, and the involuntary reeducation of personal values. Most psychologists believe brainwashing can happen under the right conditions but see it as improbable and rare, usually only occurring in a prisoner of war situation.

To establish and augment an organization’s culture, leaders have the responsibility of teaching the organization’s core beliefs to employees without disrupting or challenging ethics.  What does that mean?  Drawing from the work of social psychologist Robert Cialdini, consider these six principles for ethically influencing the behaviors of others:

1. Reciprocity: Give to get, but give first. Make top performers want to work for you personally. If you give first—not just a paycheck but other benefits like information, service, concessions, choice assignments, or attention—they will feel obligated to reciprocate.  Further, if you build a culture of reciprocity, you will find members “policing” the reciprocity. That is, a sense of fair play will emerge that demands that employees show their loyalty to the company and to each other.

2.  Consistency and Commitment: People want to be consistent with what they have said or done in the past, especially when they have done it publically. Therefore, give and elicit promises. When people write down a goal, they increase their chances of accomplishing it. When they write it down and then say it out loud to others who depend on them, they significantly increase the rate of follow through.

3.  Inclusion: People frequently decide what to do in a particular situation by observing what others have done.  Average employees will want to do what the high potentials do, so emphasize what everyone can do to align with the best and brightest.

4.  Rapport: People respond favorably to leaders they like or respect, especially if these leaders communicate that they care in return. When leaders express their appreciation of people in the organization and point out how employees embody admirable behaviors of, employees start to feel both included and liked, which engenders more of the desirable behaviors.

5. Authority: People frequently defer to a person they perceive as knowledgeable because doing so gives them a decision-making shortcut and aligns them with those others admire. Fill your organization with knowledgeable, trustworthy experts that others can claim as peers, and you’ll soon find that you have built a culture characterized by both ethics and expertise.

6.  Scarcity—the Rule of the Rare: People want more of the scarce. If you build an organization that hires only the best, you create a kind of exclusive “club” that others will want to join. Membership isn’t open to all, only those who want to work hard and do great things. Become a collector of rare performers, and you’ll find that your collection can outperform all others. If you communicate the exceptional nature of both your organization and your employees, you create a talent magnet—and a culture where employees can’t stand the idea of losing anything to the competition.

Ethical behavior isn’t a raincoat you put on when the business climate indicates you should. It defines philosophical conditions that guide your organization—not just a set of protocols. Integrity must form the foundation of your culture and drive all other decisions, but before that can happen, leaders need to identify the beliefs and behaviors that will march in lock-step precision with ethics in all kinds of conditions.