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Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.

Catching the Trend Wave.

Dec 9, 2023

I’ve always been fascinated by the subtle forces that shape our decisions, especially in the realm of leadership and organizational change. A recent article by Emeritus ASU psychology professor Robert Cialdini, curated by Katy Milkman, sheds light on an intriguing aspect of human behavior that resonates deeply with our work in preparing leaders for the future: the power of trending norms.

Milkman’s article begins with a personal anecdote: a shift from wearing skinny jeans to more modern styles after noticing this trend in Philadelphia. It’s a simple, relatable story of how we’re influenced by the changing behaviors around us. But here’s where it gets interesting - she also mentions increasing her use of ChatGPT after observing colleagues leverage it for meeting preparations. What do these shifts tell us? They highlight a fundamental human tendency to adapt our behaviors based on what’s trending in our environment.

This tendency goes beyond the classic ‘peer pressure’ or the static norm of doing something because others are doing it. It’s about observing a dynamic change - a trending norm. The real hook is in the perception of a behavior not just as popular, but as gaining popularity. When we believe a behavior is trending upwards, from say 5% to 20%, we’re not just seeing what is, but what could soon be the majority norm.

Further Cialdini references studies showing that people who believed that conserving water or eating meatless meals were trending behaviors were more likely to adopt these practices. This is a powerful message for leaders and policymakers: highlighting a trend can be more influential than stating a current norm. It suggests a trajectory, a direction where things are moving, and people naturally want to align with the ‘future majority’.

Finally, Cialdini emphasizes the need for three data points to establish a trend. This is critical in decision-making. One or two instances might be anomalies, but three start to sketch a pattern. In leadership, this means not jumping on every new fad but identifying consistent shifts that indicate a real, enduring change.

So, how do we apply this? First, it’s about being astute observers of emerging patterns and behaviors, both within and outside our organizations. Then, it’s about communicating these trends effectively, creating a narrative that these changes are not just happening, but accelerating. By doing so, we can inspire our teams to be early adopters, to be part of shaping the future rather than reacting to it.

Remember, it’s not just about where the crowd is; it’s about where the crowd is moving to.