When we think about work, there are generally two types of social proof at play – short and long.

It’s worth considering which way you’re going, and where you may need to adjust the distance of your vision to help you get to your destination.

 

A brief introduction to social proof

Shane Parrish’s excellent Farnam Street blog sums up the concept well:

The greater the number of people who find any idea correct, the more the idea will be correct…We will use the actions of others to decide on proper behavior for ourselves, especially when we view those others as similar to ourselves…When we are uncertain, we are willing to place an enormous amount of trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd…First, we seem to assume that if a lot of people are doing the same thing, they must know something we don’t…Social proof is most powerful for those who feel unfamiliar or unsure in a specific situation and who, consequently, must look outside themselves for evidence of how best to behave there… Since 95 percent of the people are imitators and only 5 percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.

You can probably see that social proof is at play in many aspects of our lives.

If you want to know more it’s well worth reading some material by Robert Cialdini and also digging deeper into the Farnam Street resources.

 

Social proof in the world of work

Short

The best social proof I know of is by cutting to the chase and working with or for a well-known brand name.

There are many advantages to doing this – opportunity, network, revenue and security being just a few.

It’s why you’ll see design agencies who only moved a couple of pixels for a big brand splash that company’s name on their website.

For a potential prospect it de-risks the proposition and increases the perception of quality, even if the work was far less challenging than that for an unknown entity.

It’s why the speaker’s bio at the conference mentions the big names they’ve worked with.

For an HR department hiring for a new role, social proof provides a margin of safety, and again de-risks. The HR manager doesn’t want to get in trouble for hiring an outlier who may not work out.

As the saying goes, no one ever got fired for buying IBM. Or, as Rory Sutherland describes, if you appoint PwC as your accountancy firm and something goes wrong – everyone blames PwC. If you appoint a more appropriate but unknown firm and something goes wrong, everyone blames you. Sutherland calls this ‘bogus rationality’ [1].

Short social proof gives validation and leverage. Often this validation is very real, other times it plays to our biases and catches us out. Social proof is really good at this.

However, going short isn’t easy – well-known brands are well-known for a reason after all. Not just anyone is going to walk into a significant role working with a company that’s got serious social proof going for it.

The challenge in the future will be what to do when change happens and what you used to use as proof is devalued, dated or defunct.

 

Long

Going long is far more painful. It’s iterative. You’ll see very little success in the early days, but as your work compounds and grows your chances of success will increase.

Going long means working on your craft in relative isolation. You’ll launch things to very small audiences. You’ll get rejected, and often worse, get ignored. The meritocracy you believe in won’t always happen.

Paul Graham compares what is effectively long and short in his essay on how to create wealth:

A big company is like a giant galley driven by a thousand rowers. Two things keep the speed of the galley down. One is that individual rowers don’t see any result from working harder. The other is that, in a group of a thousand people, the average rower is likely to be pretty average.

If you took ten people at random out of the big galley and put them in a boat by themselves, they could probably go faster. They would have both carrot and stick to motivate them. An energetic rower would be encouraged by the thought that he could have a visible effect on the speed of the boat. And if someone was lazy, the others would be more likely to notice and complain.

But the real advantage of the ten-man boat shows when you take the ten best rowers out of the big galley and put them in a boat together. They will have all the extra motivation that comes from being in a small group. But more importantly, by selecting that small a group you can get the best rowers. Each one will be in the top 1%. It’s a much better deal for them to average their work together with a small group of their peers than to average it with everyone.

One thing Graham doesn’t mention is that if you’re in a boat of 10, or 5 or just 1, it’s hard. Especially if you haven’t been in the boat of 1000, or you’re not the very best rower just yet.

So why go long? The simplest reason is compound interest. Like money, but also like goodwill and relationships, going long compounds in the future.

Creating something of your own may only be worth $1 today, but next year it may be worth $1.02. A year after that you may collect some more interest – not just on the dollar but on the extra 2 cents. Multiply that across 5, 10, even 20 years and your long game just proved pretty fruitful.

The biggest challenge here is creating the original dollar to be deposited: the work.

Which route to choose?

There’s no right or wrong here. Going short doesn’t mean cutting corners, and going long doesn’t mean you’re somehow better or on a higher crusade of some sort.

And sometimes our situations mean we just don’t get to choose which way we go.

What can’t be denied is that social proof is real and it’s powerful. It’s part of the game.

The challenge for those who play long is making those deposits and not paying too much attention to the short game.

The challenge for those that who play short is to stay relevant when the game gets longer.

 

How to get ahead

Here are a few tips for each route:

Short:

  • Don’t stick your neck out just for the sake of it, but think about alternatives to the status quo – avoid the bogus rationality. No one got fired for buying IBM – but why are you buying IBM now? Why should you buy it tomorrow?
  • Your network is a hugely important asset, but it’s very easy to be myopic. Put yourself into adjacent networks and use your social proof to access them. Share your knowledge at that meet up event that’s crying out for someone like you.
  • Take stock of your career inventory – what would you like to learn but haven’t had the time or access? Who would you ask to help guide you on the discovery mission?

 

Long: 

  • Respect those that go short. Their journey has usually been longer than it appears and they’ve made lots of smaller invisible deposits over that time. They just earn a different kind of interest.
  • Seek out others who are playing long and are seeing some seeds of success. It’s a long road but spending time with others a step or two further along will make the seemingly impossible feel a little more tangible
  • Remember the world of work is changing fast and your deposits are often a result of your curiosity. A senior recruiter recently posted on LinkedIn complaining about having to help people who wanted to change lanes. Tom Goodwin from Zenith Optimedia replied with this message to stay odd, stay weird, stay curious. I believe he’s right.

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And whichever road you’re taking, just make sure you can prove it.

 

Call to action: I’m working on a project to help people reach their goals and connect with like-minded communities. If you’d like to join our burgeoning network of curious professionals, drop me an email or a tweet – I’d love to hear your story.