How social influence can hold your organisation back and how to use it to enable evolution – Part 1

culture Mar 28, 2019

How social influence can hold your organisation back and how to use it to enable evolution – Part 1

Most organisations have espoused values and behaviours to describe how people ‘should’ act and interact.  These can cover anything from treating each other with respect, through to being innovative and thinking strategically.  The espoused values are intended to enable people to be effective and have humane and uplifting work experiences. Yet, the experiences of day to day working life can contrast unfavourably.

While setting expectations is important, there is much more to enabling these expectations to be lived than simply naming them and communicating them. One factor can be how social motivation1 and social influence2 show up or are applied in an organisation.

This article explores a range of perspectives on social motivation and influence and the importance of evolving our ideas around social motivation and influence to enable adaptation and evolution.  A second article in this series explores practical ways to evolve social motivation and influence.

Some background theories to social motivation and influence:

In the early 1940s, Abraham Maslow created his theory of needs. This identified the basic needs that human beings have, in order of their importance: physiological needs, safety needs, and the needs for belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation.

His theory paved the way for people to look beyond ‘controlling’ other people through social influence and motivation, and to engaging peoples’ “higher order needs”.  This includes bringing more of their unique spark and creativity to the work they do.  Whilst organisational experiences that enable higher order needs are few, many organisations see this as the holy grail in enabling ongoing evolution.

Higher order needs tend to be fulfilled by evolving through and contributing to the social context, rather than being beholden to it.  The work of Dan Pink on individual motivation around purpose, autonomy and mastery can more fully come to life when higher order needs are at the centre.

Maslow’s work is further informed by an understanding of the dark side of needs and motivations related to social influence, through research by people such as Stanley Milgrim and Herbert Kelman.

An evolutionary perspective:

Maslow’s work provided a foundation for adult development theory (Graves, Kegan, Cook-Greuter etc.) which relates to individual evolution, and the Adaptive Cultures Framework which relates to collective evolution.

As we look through a developmental or evolutionary lens, there are big clues to how our worldviews can shape the way our social connections are developed as well as the cultures and organisations we are part of. We wonder how many currently held world views and the theories that have shaped them (primarily behaviourism and humanism) might limit the ability of the human being and the organisation to bring out their greater potential.

We’ll now explore five stages of evolution of social motivation and influence:
  1. Social Recognition
  2. Social Acceptance
  3. Co – Achievement
  4. Social Contribution
  5. Social Evolution

Let’s first take a look at social recognition and acceptance, which are most relevant at Impulse Oriented, Compliant Dependent and Achievement stages of cultural evolution.  While most organisations still see these as essential to creating their desired organisational culture, “traditional approaches to” leveraging social recognition and acceptance are likely to impede innovation as well as cultural and organisational evolution.

Social recognition

The need to be recognised or seen can arise in human beings from their earliest stages of development.  When human beings do not develop the self-awareness to move beyond being driven by recognition, this can manifest itself through self-orientation around power, win-lose competitiveness, and behaviours that draw attention to an individual.

Organisations, often unconsciously, draw on and feed this motivation through status and recognition mechanisms, such as large offices, titles, remuneration and incentives, or sales competitions. Played out to its extreme, this form of motivation leads to internal competition and divisions that limit an organisation’s capacity to evolve.

When organisations feed this type of motivation, they effectively disable the higher order attributes of the human being and the creativity and genius available to the organisation.


Social acceptance

As a key motivator of a significant proportion of people in organisations, many motivational methods concentrate on social acceptance as a core way of driving organisational outcomes.

This can manifest through espoused values and behaviours, and clear policies and expectations setting “the right thing to do”.  It can also exist at the heart of many team-building activities and feedback processes which focus on what “good” team members do and what is expected as a team member.

While leveraging social acceptance can be a quick and efficient way of gaining compliance with organisational initiatives, it rarely creates a groundswell of deeper motivation to take carriage or ownership for initiatives. Therefore, it can lead to slow, steady and often linear progress driven from the top down.

It can also be suppressive, as the expectation to comply restricts human capacity to innovate, experiment or question the status quo. The emphasis on extrinsic motivation (what other people think of and expect from you) is shown to impede intrinsic motivation.

What we know is that so-called “mavericks and provocateurs” can play a useful role in evolving thinking and actions.  In a conformist culture, they may be seen as being impolite, not respecting authority, or not being “on board”.

Considering these insights, what is possible when social influence and motivation move beyond ways of controlling people to ways of engaging our higher order needs and supporting individual and collective uniqueness and contribution?

Co – achievement

Beyond the needs for being recognised or being accepted, an emerging social perspective can hold both individual and other needs at the same time, in order to get better outcomes. I + you begins to develop into a much stronger and more expansive WE. With a strong “I”, the WE is able to hold the interrelatedness of all people whilst also respecting the uniqueness of each person (unity and diversity and inclusion).  Speaking up and listening well become a business-as-usual way of operating and way of accessing our shared ingenuity to solve problems.

Sharing of insights and information across functions becomes a regular occurrence, and there is a greater cohesion of goal setting and strategy with one aligned lens. At this stage, executive leadership teams and other cross-functional groups can operate as a single social unit, each member owning the whole organisational strategy.

Working to get effective outcomes across functions becomes much more common, as social connections are leveraged to get better outcomes.

People begin to see the enormous benefits of forming larger networks across their organisation in order to accelerate the transferring of knowledge and information and to reduce duplication and eliminate wastage.

The whole organisation starts to look to the world and systems external to it in a more wholesome way, therefore gaining truer customer centricity and ability to participate with the emerging future.


Social contribution

As social motivation evolves, people begin to see their role and influence goes well beyond their immediate team, function or organisation. They open to and can become inspired by the realisation that each person they enable to evolve, goes out into the world creating ongoing ripples of positive evolution.

Capacity to solve complex challenges can increase significantly, with groups much more able to build on each other’s wisdom and take an interest in broader perspectives. This can rapidly accelerate an organisation’s capacity to adapt and evolve.

Identity often develops well beyond traditional notions of family or role or nationality or ethnicity and stretches into identity as a member of the human race or greater planetary ecosystem.  An expanded sense of self and connection enables expanded contribution of as part of much larger systems.

Inside organisations, people see themselves as stewards of culture and influencers of the wider world and have a much greater degree of ownership than earlier stages. ‘Every interaction is a cultural intervention’ moves from being a mantra to a lived experience.


Social evolution

Beyond social contribution comes the motivation to actively catalyse the evolution of society and our world. This can manifest through enabling much larger ecosystems of people across many spheres of influence. It can include establishing social movements that progress society.

Through a social evolution lens, the organisation is experienced as a vehicle for something much larger and personal evolution is experienced as the most profound catalyst to enable social evolution.

Individuals see themselves as stewards of the evolution of all stakeholders within the larger ecosystem of the entities they are part of. This includes customers, providers, regulators, governing bodies and investors.



Our next article explores how organisations can create the conditions for the kind of social motivation and social influence that engages and encourages innovation, growth and more expansive possibilities.


At Adaptive Cultures we work with organisations to enable ongoing evolution.


If you are interested in being part of the Adaptive Cultures Community or bringing these ideas to your organisation you might like to apply for our next Adaptive Cultures Practitioner Accreditation.


  1. “Social Motivation refers to the human need to interact with other humans and to be accepted by them. These interactions are considered to be social behaviours that address, either directly or indirectly, other people with the purpose of soliciting a response.” – alleydog.com
  2. “Social Influence – the actions, reactions, and thoughts of an individual are influenced by other people or groups. Social influence may be represented by peer pressure, persuasion, marketing, sales, and conformity.” businessdictionary.com

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