Management and product development lessons from the 1950’s

2671775In 1955, Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld published “Personal Influence“. This studied how small-group dynamics moderate or influence mass media messaging. For example how people decide who to vote for, which brand of lipstick to use, or which movie to go and watch.

Reading this in 2018 it’s striking to see how much is still valid. I’m not posting this to provide tremendous new insights. Any insights here are over 60 years old. Apparently, human behaviour doesn’t change very much over the generations.

How people choose their leaders

In order to become a leader, one must share prevailing opinions and attitudes. (p52)

They cite a 1952 study on children in a day nursery in which kids with “leadership qualities” were separated from the other children who were then placed into groups of 3-6. These new groups created their own “traditions” (e.g. who sits where, group jargon, division of who plays with what objects). The original leaders were then re-introduced:

In every case, when an old leader attempted to assert authority which went contrary to a newly established “tradition” of the group, the group did not respond. Some of the leaders, as a matter of fact, never returned to power. Others, who were successful, did achieve leadership once more but only after they had completely identified with the new “tradition” and participated in it themselves. (p52)

Or another 1952 study amongst a religious interest group, a political group, a medical fraternity and a medical sorority:

[T]hose who had been chosen as leaders were much more accurate in judging group opinion … But this was so only on the matters which were relevant to the group’s interest – medicine for the medical group, politics for the political group, etc. It seems reasonable to conclude … that leaders of groups like this are chosen, in part at least, because of recognized qualities of ‘sensitivity’ to other members of the group. (p102)

A succinct argument as to why people who want to become leaders need to first spend time listening.

Group participation improves take-up

Here’s are some more 1952 studies that the authors cite:

  1. A study in a maternity hospital in which “some mothers were given individual instruction .. and others were formed into groups of six and guided in a discussion which culminated in a [group] ‘decision’ [to follow the instruction.” The participants in the group dicussion adhered “much more closely” to the child-care programme. (pp74-75).
  2. A study comparing a lecture approach vs a group discussion on “the nutritional and patriotic justifications for the wartime food campaign to buy and serve ‘unpopular’ cuts of meat. 3% of those involved in the lecture followed the desired course of action, vs 32% of those in the group discussion.

Worth bearing in mind in the next meeting you host, or the next corporate communication you send out.

How small groups construct their reality

So many things in the world are inaccessible to direct empirical observation that individuals must continually rely on each other for making sense out of things. (p55)

Apparently 1952 was a bumper year for social sciences. Here is another 1952 study in which individuals were asked to decide how far and in which direction a point of light was moving. The catch was that the point of light was static. The study found that:

  1. When people were shown the light individually, they would make their own judgment of how it was moving. When they were later put into small groups of 2 or 3, “[e]ach of the subjects based his first few estimates on his previously established standard, but confronted, this time, with the dissenting judgments of the others each gave way somewhat until a new, group standard became established.”
  2. If a group session came first, the group would achieve a consensus of how the light was moving, and each individual would adopt the group’s consensus as their own position.

The way reality is generated by social groups is something to bear in mind during user research activities.

How the make-up of a group affects quality of communication

You guessed it, it’s another 1952 study that found that:

  1. Rank in the group affects how people communicate. Specifically: “[P]-erson-to-person messaged are directed at the more popular group members and thus may be said to move upward in the hierarchy, while communication from one person to several others tends to flow down” (p89).
  2. As groups get larger (from 3 to 8) “more and more communication is directed to one member of the group, thus reducing the relative amount of interchange among all members with each other. At the same time the recipient of this increased attention begins to direct more and more of his remarks to the group as a whole, and proportionately less to specific individuals.” (pp89-90)

I’m sure these two findings will ring very true of many meetings you’ve been in. I suspect that the person who becomes the centralising leader in these communications might not even realise the role they are playing. Reading this makes me more keen to try out the kind of silent meetings approach they use at Square.




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