Your Circles Define You. Choose Wisely.

The people in our circles of influence set our standards, what we vision for ourselves, and how we approach change.Given the impact our peers have on us, it's surprising to me that we select our them based on proximity.Relationships are not necessarily formed people who have similar personalities and interests. It’s the people you literally sit next to, work with, or live near. Whom we find ourselves mingling with can have enormous implications. As Jim Rohn has wisely said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Similarly, international public speaker Portor Gale believes your social capital, or your ability to build a network of authentic personal and professional relationships, not your financial capital, is the most important asset in your portfolio. She wrote a book about it: “Your network is your net worth.”Like the frog in a pot of slowly boiling water, we adapt to whatever environment we find ourselves. We have what psychologists call an “external locus of control,” where we believe factors outside of us dictate the direction of our lives. Thus, we live reactively to whatever life throws at us.Who is in your smallest circle? How did they get there? Was it intentional or because they were close by? Do these people raise your game? Or, do they hold you back?If you want to move forward in your life or career, you need to surround yourself with people who have higher standards than you do. Life is a reflection of what you deem permissible. You embrace what you are willing to tolerate. Personal experience shows us that most people will stay in unhealthy relationships for too long, nurse poor finances, and endure jobs they hate. If those things were tolerated, they wouldn't be in our lives.Recently, I’ve been working on a book. I had gotten it to a level I was comfortable sharing it out. I shared it with friends asking for feedback and got a few comments here and there. I took a writing class and in every draft, my teacher shows me why and how it could be 10x better, and she holds me to that standard.Versions I was previously satisfied with now make me cringe. Were my standards that much lower than my writing teacher's standards? At the time, yes. As she helped me raise my game, my standards increased too. Feedback is a wonderful gift.The same thing happened during my doctorate research. I sent my advisor a paper I thought was good and he found it unreadable. He challenged me to rethink my outline, always centering me with the question, "what is the story I'm trying to tell?" His questioning forced me to continue to think deeper and deeper on my topic. It was challenging and even frustrating, but it made me better.This kind of dynamic isn’t just for working relationships. What about your romantic partner? Do they help you rethink your standard for what is possible? Do they help you become a better person? Do they challenge you to think differently? Do you help them?Generally speaking, at any given time, a small part of your group is moving forward, the rest mimic whoever they are around at the time (we want to fit in), and the rest are moving backward. I didn't make that up, it's the old 80/20 rule from economics.Here’s what the Wikipedia has to say about it:

The principle was suggested by management thinker Joseph M. Juran. It was named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 80% of income in Italy was received by 20% of the Italian population. The assumption is that most of the results in any situation are determined by a small number of causes.

Because we reflect on those around us, it's important to take stock of who is in our circle and what standards they have. If they drop, we drop. If they raise, we raise. That is why phrases like "rising tides raise all boats" or "better together" are used to describe efforts of raising everyone in a corporate culture, or society at large.There are people in your life that just by being around them have increased your thinking, creativity, and energy. Those are the kinds of people you need to reach out and collect. Those are the kinds of people you need to be more like yourself so that you are an example to others just by being around you.The standards you embrace for your life and work are set by what kind of life you want for yourself. You determine what is permissible. You define a quality life and the quality of your work. If you’re fine coasting than those around you coast as well.If you want to raise your game, you have to find the better players and learn from them. Change your circles, change what and how you learn.The talent and “potential” you were born with are irrelevant, especially if they don’t help you realize it. We all know people in our lives with unfulfilled potential. Don’t let that be you.The people in our circles of influence set our standards, what we vision for ourselves, and how we approach change. This fact is undeniable.

The question is: what are you going to do about it?


Mental Models: Social Proof


How might this apply to great teams and cultures?

Two other things about social proof that are worth noting: It is more powerful when people are in ambiguous or uncertain circumstances; and, a person’s perceived peers exert stronger social proof.Imagine you are a new hire in your organization. You are naturally uncertain in your new work environment. You are going to look at your peers to see how to behave. If your new peers are following the company rules in a certain way, you will do the same. You won’t be able to help yourself because of the powerful social proof around you. A toxic culture is when there is a disconnect between the stated rules and the actual behaviors of the employees.

How might this apply to great products?

To put people at ease or to guide a decision, find creative ways to show social activity. This can be in the form of stats (liked-by, number-of-views, comments), positive reviews and testimonials, or visibility into the actions or outcomes of other users’ behaviors. On a larger scale, we allow others to innovate while we maintain the status quo.For example, policy makers and media understand how their policies and the report of these policies give "social proof" to legitimize or delegitimize certain ideas.


Think about how ideas or strategies are legitimized or delegitimized in your group or organization. Are you strategic in the way you on-board and place new hires? Do you consider what specific behaviors you want to emphasize when devising the composition of your work teams? Do your employees have input in the design and development of your product guidelines and procedures (hint: Google “IKEA Effect”). Fighting social proof and human nature with management cliches is not an effective strategy.

See Also

Positive Mimicry, Status Quo Bias, Competition, Shaping, Authority, Autonomy, Reputation, Status


In the whirl of our day-to-day interactions, it’s all too easy to forget the nuances that distinguish great teams, great cultures, and great products/services.

Mental Model Flash Cards bring together insights from psychology into an easy reference and brainstorming tool. Each card describes one insight into human behavior and suggests ways to apply this to your teams as well as the design of your products and services.