09/08/2014 08:31 am ET Updated Sep 09, 2014

Get Rid of 3 Common But Harmful Workplace Habits

Do you remember the anxiety of being picked last for the basketball team in phys ed? Or the pressure of doing an oral presentation right after the coolest kid around in English class? Of course you do! Such events threatened your fundamental need to belong, and so they impacted you deeply at the time they happened.

The desire to fit in is a powerful shaper of behavior. In some cases, social pressures serve us well. Just think that 20 or 30 years ago, smoking in public places, drinking and driving and littering were not only commonplace, but widely accepted. Thankfully, things have changed.

In other cases, social pressures are lagging behind their times, specifically at work. Take the following examples:

Sleep: We glorify sleep deprivation, as if it were a sign of being needed, successful and irreplaceable, and as if it testified of our strong work ethic.

Food: We think it's okay to twist somebody else's arm so they eat something unhealthy, or so they eat past satiation. "Come on, just one piece of brownie won't kill you..."

Exercise: Sitting is the new smoking. There's new research coming out every month about the dangers of our sedentary lifestyles -- see this Washington Post infographic for one example. Yet social convention pressures us into spending long days moving from one chair to the next without much movement at all.

Improving Norms
How can we start shifting these unhealthy pressures so they become a thing of the past? Let's consider two examples where social pressure was used successfully in implementing healthier norms.

A North Carolina program aimed at preventing teenage pregnancy used the tagline Talk to your kids about sex. Everyone else is. This message created a tension that became more uncomfortable then the uncomfortable conversation itself. Who would want their kid to be the only one uninformed about important issues that affect people their age? The following phone survey found that parents who had been exposed to this campaign were more likely to talk to their teens about sex the next month.

In another experiment, researcher Shultz and colleagues looked at the influence of social norms on household energy consumption. Households who were consuming under the average for that area received feedback along with a happy face, conveying social approval of their energy use. Those who were consuming above average received their feedback with a sad face, conveying disapproval of their higher footprint. In the following months, the over-consuming households reduced their energy use while the under-consuming households kept their usage levels the unchanged.

These two experiments suggest that social norms can be effective motivators for behavior change. 

Social Pressure as a Workplace Health Promotion Strategy
Here are a few examples of how to use social pressure to address the challenges identified above.

Sleep: Respond to those who brag about their sleep deprivation with an equally boastful statement of how well you slept lately, and how refreshed and productive you feel as a result.

Food: A lot of good eating intentions are sapped by the sugary snacks brought to the break room by well meaning colleagues who didn't want to eat a whole batch of cookies on their own. Talk to your colleagues and agree on a new norm, such as if it's not healthy enough for me, it's not good enough for my colleagues either.

Exercise: You probably do a lot of your sitting in work meetings. Meeting leaders will often start things out by making a statement about why the group has been gathered together. Very often, that statement is followed by a question: "Anything else you'd like to add?" Here's your opportunity to add a little social pressure. "I'd like us to make sure everyone is contributing to the best of their ability throughout the meeting by allowing everyone to stand up and enjoy a stretching break each hour." Ta-da! Tough to say no to that!

As you experiment with social pressure, be careful not to state that the behavior you're trying to extinguish is the current norm. For example, a campaign declaring "We're all eating very large portions around here, let's reduce them," would reinforce that overeating is common place, and your efforts would backfire. Instead, make the desired behavior center stage: "We're all trying to eat less. Let's help each other out."

We certainly shouldn't ostracize those who adopt or even promote unhealthy behaviors. But we sure could use a healthy dose of social pressure to reject behaviors we know to be harmful. And if need be, ruffling a few feathers along the way is still better than maintaining a status quo we now know to be blatantly outdated.