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How social comparison affects behaviour at work

Social comparison plays a critical role in influencing our behaviour at work, according to new research from the University of Cologne and LBS

The study was conducted by Matthew Baldwin, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cologne, and Thomas Mussweiler, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School (LBS). The culture of social comparison examined how our environment drives the degree to which we look to others for affiliation, self-esteem and cues about what to think, how to feel and how to behave.

The research found that people living in ‘tight’ cultures, with very clear social norms and harsh punishments for deviation, are more likely to compare themselves with peers as a benchmark for how they should think, feel and behave. ,

Speaking to HR magazine, Baldwin explained that social comparison plays an important role in workplace culture: “Social comparison is fundamental to human life in general, but we found that people rank the workplace and job interviews as one of the two tightest situations they experience in their daily lives,” he said.

“Given that we find tightness and comparison are connected, there are often tight norms surrounding what it means to be successful and what you’re allowed to do and not to do in the workplace.”

Acts of social comparison are carried out in everyday tasks at work, said Baldwin. “There are often scripts that people follow on what a CV should look like, and how we should act in a job interview. To make sure that your CV looks the way it’s supposed to you might go online and check other people’s CVs.”

Such comparison can be useful in preventing risky situations at work, he said: “Where cultural practices are functional is in places where there is a large degree of threat to survival. Creating rules about what people can and can’t do can be important for people’s safety in highly-risky situations.

“So we can see how this is also useful in some ways. In an organisation where there’s a lot of risk you can’t have people doing whatever they want.”

Jealousy, however, is the main consequence of social comparison and can lead to employees feeling demotivated, caveatted Baldwin. "The consequence is that when you’ve got a lot of rules and regulation you’ve also got a lot of jealousy. And when people are more jealous they can be more unhappy.”

Baldwin explained that social comparison is both an active and an unconscious behaviour.

“It can be deliberate. If we’re feeling low in self-esteem, for example, we might compare ourselves to people we look down on in order to improve our feelings of self-worth. If we are feeling uncertain of how to dress at work we’d feel highly motivated to compare ourselves to the typical worker and see what they dress like.

“But social comparison definitely plays unconsciously too. We often use stimuli from the environment that are completely irrelevant to the task at hand, and influence on our judgement, without us realising it.”

He added that simply being aware of the role social comparison plays can help organisations recognise how behaviour at their workplace is being influenced.

“There’s no way of doing social comparison training; it’s just part of human life. But where organisations can work [on this] is through looking at their organisations, understanding which parts are loose and which are tight, and understanding the potential for social comparison.”

The research was based on a survey of 1,000 people in the US across a range of sectors.