How Many People Do We Need To Start A Workplace Revolution?

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar July 28, 2018

Some gurus forecast a looming shift in our way of working. Yet, we all know that the progressive organizations from our Bucket List are a very small percentage of the world’s workplaces. The boring, out-dated workplace is still the norm.

Which raises an important question. How many pioneers does the world need before inspiring workplaces are the norm rather than the exception?

The tipping point

Evolutionary game theory gives us a guide. When an engaged minority reaches a critical size – the critical mass – the complete system crosses a tipping point. And once this point is reached, ideas developed by the minority are rapidly taken over by the majority.

Thus, minority groups can initiate change in organizations—even society. Which implies that major change isn’t necessarily driven by groups with authority, but rather by groups engaged and committed to a cause.

The boring, out-dated workplace is still the norm. Which raises an important question; how many workplace pioneers does the world need before inspiring workplaces are the norm rather than the exception?
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The practical question

Which brings us back to our question: how many progressive workplaces do we need to tip the opinions of the majority to those of the progressive minority? In other words: what is the tipping point for boring workplaces? During our Bucket List visits around the world we sensed some different signals.

On the one hand, Isaac Getz author of Freedom Inc., and Professor at ESCP Europe, talked to us about the “French Corporate Liberation Movement.” He claims that, once just 7% of French companies bigger than 500 employees are liberated, the whole French economy will automatically collapse into complete liberation.

On the other hand, the team at NER Group in Bilbao emphasises the necessity of having at least 80% of the employees agree to radically transform a workplace. (We use the same kind of percentage in our own transformation work.)

Although these numbers measure slightly different things, they still differ enormously. So, we still can’t answer our original question: what percentage of people is required to change the majority’s opinion about out-dated ways of working?

The scientific answer

Until recently, the evidence from science was also scarce. Studies reported a wide range of sizes for the critical mass. These ranged from 10% to 40%. Luckily, a recent article in the respected journal Science describes an experiment that enables us to offer a better answer to our practical question.

Researchers from the University of London and the University of Pennsylvania describe the results of an experiment in which they create, manipulate and study the behaviour of online communities.

The experiment

The experiment was conducted in two steps:

1. Establish the social norm of the group

At first, researchers divided 194 participants into 10 online communities, each around 25 participants. Then they paired two members of the same community and showed them an object. Subsequently they asked them to choose a name for this object.

If both members entered the same name, they were financially rewarded. If they entered different names, they were financially penalized. After each round, participants were paired with another member of the same group. In this way the researchers could quickly establish a social norm within each community.

2. Introduce "confederates" to trigger the tipping point

Once the social norm was established, the researchers introduced a small number of “confederates” to each group. These had the task of breaking the status quo by changing the established name (the social norm) to something else.

Different percentages of confederates were introduced into existing communities. The sizes of these ‘engaged minorities’ were in the range of 15% to 35%. Researchers discovered that an engaged minority of ~25% was consistently able to change the status quo.


The critical mass for a paradigm shift

To be clear, the researchers do not claim that 25% is a universal value for making major changes in society. However, their findings do suggest that circa 25% could be sufficient to overturn established norms.

This all makes 25% a potentially realistic answer to our practical question. If 25% of the world’s workplaces are committed to a radically different approach, boring and out dated workplaces could be a thing of the past. Might the much-anticipated shift in the way we work then finally happen?

If 25% of the world’s workplaces are committed to a radically different approach, boring and out dated workplaces could be a thing of the past.
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Of course, we should not forget there are plenty of other variables at play. But at least this gives us a number to aim for – 25% – that is based on science, and not on guesswork.

One way or the other, with 25% of workplaces as a target, there is still much work to do.

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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