The power of the first follower
Recently, David and I visited a client’s office for the first time and were a little bemused to find on arrival a queue, running from the building’s front door across the width of the pavement. We spent a few minutes wondering what to do, and I must confess that joining on to the back of the queue was something we considered. However, on seeing someone else walk past the queue and through the revolving doors, we followed suit.
It turned out that we might have found ourselves driving a taxi around the streets of London by the end of the day if we’d joined the queue. The people assembled were waiting for a recruitment company, offering temporary driving contracts, to open for business.
I know that it’s a very British habit to queue politely, but I don’t think it’s just about the queue. Have you ever come across a group of people looking skywards and found yourself following their gaze? Would you feel uncomfortable using the men’s loo even though it’s not being used and the queue for the ladies is huge, but are happy to go straight in after another female comes out of it? (Or is that one just me?) For most of us, it feels safer and more comfortable to do what other people are already doing.
There’s a famous clip online of a man dancing on his own in the sunshine, until someone else joins him and then before very long at all, there’s a whole crowd having a good old boogie. You can see it here.
People were perhaps thinking that the guy dancing on his own was a little weird, until the second guy joins in, and suddenly others feel assured that it’s okay and actually looks like a lot of fun. More recently I saw a great clip of a man spontaneously singing in a tube station. You can catch that one here.
It’s not long before most of the other people on the platform were singing along too. But, I wonder who the first person to join in was, and how quickly people started singing too once there was more than one person doing it.
It’s a brave thing to stand out and do something very different, but let’s not underestimate the power of the ‘first follower’, who makes the decision that it’d be fine to get involved too. Joining one guy doing a random dance might feel uncomfortable or even scary, but joining in with a whole bunch of people feels like an easier way to enjoy the fun for most people.
When we advise clients on managing change in their organisations, we explain the importance of finding individuals who will champion the change. Dr John Kotter refers to it in his eight step process for leading change as building a guiding coalition. However it’s important to consider who the ‘first followers’ will be too, as they will bring people along with them. If you need to introduce some change, remember that people are drawn to things that other people are already doing (queueing, dancing, singing) so don’t forget to think about how you can make it feel safe and comfortable for people to join in with what you are hoping they will do.