It’s human nature for people to need to “belong” and “be accepted”, and this has a direct effect on their behaviour

All of us want to belong to a group of some form or function. This could be a family group, religious group, a university or college, a sports club, a particular sports team, boy scouts or girl guides, or simply a group of friends. It’s human nature.

Regardless of the form or function, many of us will have memories of wanting to be part of a group when growing up.

In my case, growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, and riding motorcycles from a young age, I always wanted to be part of a bikers’ club called the Scorpions. One of our older friends was part of this club, and members got to wear a jacket with the prestigious Scorpions insignia. Much to my father’s relief, I never did become a member of that club, but it was very much what I wanted to do as a young boy.

Some years later, I met a soldier-to-be on the train en route to Upington, in the Northern Cape. His name was Deon and, with a train trip as an introduction to our two-year conscription military service together, we quickly became great friends.

Deon had never jumped out of an aeroplane (obviously with a parachute on his back), but he had one objective and that was to join a parachute battalion (Parabat) at the end of his basic training.

For him, the thrill of jumping out of an aeroplane was the second objective. His primary objective was to be part of the Parabats, and to wear the coveted maroon beret and the wings on his chest. Not unlike me and the Scorpions, Deon simply needed to be part of the Parabats.

In much the same way, people in the workplace also tend to want to be accepted as a member of a group … be it a group of shift workers, a maintenance team, or simply a group of colleagues who sit together for their daily lunch break.

While the type and nature of groups can vary quite substantially, the motivation is the same: needing to belong and be associated with a particular group of people. This strong need for a sense of belonging is typical of human nature, and often impacts (or even dictates) our behaviour.

Group pressure and its consequences – a reality

While wanting to belong to a group is natural, the behavioural pressures that this often brings to members of the group is also a reality. The workplace is not immune to these trends which include, for example, the pressure to complete a task on time (or even ahead of schedule), to start up a machine or to return to normal production, or the pressure of wanting to prove to team leaders and/or colleagues that you’re a person that “gets things done”.

The pressure of needing to belong or be accepted unfortunately often negatively impacts our behaviour. For example, when a shift leader prioritises production results ahead of the safety of his or her team, it can develop a working group that accepts (and sometimes even encourages) at-risk behaviour within the team (in the pursuit of higher productivity).

As a direct result of the shift leader’s priorities, his or her team will do just about anything to maintain production … even if it means breaking the rules or failing to adhere to the safe work procedures.

In addition, any newcomer to the team, in pursuit of their need to belong, is likely to follow the team’s poor example. They may even be exposed to on-the-job training that is not conducive to a safe working environment – all further compounding the problem.

Some practical examples

Some years back, I saw footage from a surveillance camera within a coal mine where employees were jumping onto an operating coal conveyor to move through the mine without having to walk.

This was, without doubt, not permitted behaviour, but at some stage an employee took the chance and rode the conveyor, with others following suit. Whether all team members actually agreed with the behaviour or simply conformed for fear of not being part of the “group”, the result was the same: the at-risk behaviour was condoned by the team and became the norm for all.

While privy to the footage, I unfortunately don’t know if there was an incident or if action was ever taken for the mining misconduct. However, had the investigative team considered the real issue – of wanting to belong to a group and the impact that had on the team’s behaviour – it may have developed actions to address the behaviour of the conveyor riders, as well as the real issue of them needing to belong.

In another case, I recently enrolled to study Social Psychology of Risk at an Australian institution. During one of the course modules, we were discussing the impact that groups have on individuals and how people tend to want to be part of a group and/or follow the example of a specific group in order to be accepted.

To demonstrate this, we were shown a number of videos where individuals followed the behaviour of a group without ever really understanding the reason(s) behind the group’s actions. I was sceptical, thinking that much of the video footage was staged … because surely a person wouldn’t be that silly?

One of the videos, for example, showed a person entering an elevator that was already carrying three people. Unbeknown to the fourth person having just entered the elevator, all three were actors. When the elevator doors closed, the three actors turned around to face the rear side of the elevator. To my surprise, it wasn’t long before the fourth person also turned around!

He had no understanding of why the other people (actors) had turned around, but it was clear that he did not want to be the only one facing the front and so “blindly” followed the actions of the others.

At a team dinner later that evening, with the video footage still bothering me, I laid down a challenge to our professor and the other students: one of our fellow students had not arrived for the first day of the course, and we agreed that, at the start the second day while the professor summarised the previous day’s work, we would all arbitrarily take off our shoes and place them in the corner of the room. We would then see if the newcomer would follow the actions of the group.

The second day commenced and, as agreed, as the professor started to recap on the previous day, I took off my shoes and placed them in the corner of the room. Our professor and the other students did the same.

To my surprise, and despite a very confused expression on his face, it didn’t take the new person long before he, too, slipped off his shoes! While he didn’t place his shoes in the corner, he had sufficiently demonstrated the point that the professor had been making: that it’s human nature for people to “blindly” conform to the actions of others simply to “belong”.

Developing the right groups – a leadership issue

As leaders (be it managers, supervisors, foremen or team leaders), we have a responsibility to develop teams that regard safety as a value. We need to ensure that we, and all our teams, work hard and continuously to entrench good safety habits and adherence to the safety rules and requirements in all that we do.

At times this is more difficult to achieve than simply allowing a group to be established that disregards safety, takes short cuts and tolerates risk taking. As leaders, we need to remind our teams that the reward for developing an exemplary safety culture far outweighs the effort it takes, and that it’s the only way to effectively reduce the number of injuries and incidents.

Being part of the group that takes safety seriously is how together we can achieve better production results, better efficiencies, fewer incidents and ensure a sense of order in the workplace.

Summary

It is fact that people want to belong to a group, regardless of whether such groups are well-intended or destructive, respected or feared, liked or disliked. There is much evidence to prove that people will often “blindly” follow the actions of those groups just to ensure their acceptance.

Leaders therefore need to work hard and continuously to provide a safe working environment for employees, contractors and visitors. They need to actively invest in the development of workplace groups (shifts and work teams) that take safety seriously.

Just as parents attempt to guide, sway and convince their children to belong to the “right” friendship groups, so, too, leaders in the workplace must guide their staff into the “right” groups.

This can be achieved if senior line managers, together with their safety professionals, are trained and coached in how to identify “problematic” groups that are not taking safety seriously. Through ongoing training and coaching, those groups can then change their habits and align their behaviour with the safety objectives of the company.

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