Idioms often serve as metaphors for what people intuitively understand about their socially constructed reality. And in the English language, when it comes to illustrating the power of peers in our lives, there is no shortage of such expressions: Birds of a feather flock together. We’re all in the same boat. We’re known by the company we keep. Great minds think alike. These are among the most common. More than simple figures of speech, they underscore the fact that the people with whom we surround ourselves matter a great deal. Our friends and colleagues encourage us, compete with us, and share common aspirations. We are capable of lifting each other up, holding one another at bay, or dragging each other down. One can easily make the argument that it’s our peers (not our leaders) who have the greatest influence on our success and happiness.
Of course our parents always understood this. It’s why they were so inquisitive about our friends and classmates. They knew that even in the ideal parent-child relationship, peers wielded enormous power. As a teenager, I recall my mother responding to what she observed about my changed behavior (which she attributed to my new best friend) by asking, “If your friend jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” I’m guessing you may have heard that (or some version of it) when you were growing up as well. And while you may not have jumped off a bridge, it’s likely you were led astray a time or two. Or on the positive side, you studied more and worked harder because of a friend or colleague who led by example.
As we’ve gotten older, none of that has changed. In fact, because of the digital platforms that connect us, peer influence is more pervasive than ever. Today, we’re far less inclined to trust institutional experts (if you don’t believe me, check out the results of the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer). Instead, we trust the opinions and experiences of peers we’ve never met (fellow readers, students, consumers, etc.). We trust the prevailing sentiment of these online peers, with whom we have something temporarily in common, with everything from book recommendations and product reviews to which college we should attend and what car we should buy.
Without giving it a second thought or that much effort, we experience the power of peer influence every day. Imagine if we gave it a second thought. Consider what could happen if we were more purposeful about how we harnessed that power. By being more selective, strategic, and structured about how we connect with our peers, we would turn garden-variety peer influence into peer advantage. The truth is, we can help each other in ways we can’t find anywhere else.
If you want to grow as an individual, become a better leader, and prepare your organization to meet the challenges of the future, engage a group of peers who you respect and who are committed to the same goals, and watch what happens! For those of you who have a story about the difference a peer (or group of peers) made in your life, please share it in a comment and share this post with a peer. Your story, and those like it, may be a dime a dozen, but it’s value to you is likely to be priceless. Tell us about the company you keep and why they matter so much.