It’s Thursday night, and your colleagues want to stay after work to prepare for the next day’s office party. You want to go home to rest and be sharp for an early morning meeting, but your colleagues tell you it’s just an hour or two — why not stay? You’re torn between going with the group or sticking to your own convictions.
This is an example of peer pressure in the workplace. Peer influence is a powerful force that can affect your behavior, thoughts, and decisions.
Although it’s more commonly discussed in the context of social settings, peer pressure can be a pervasive part of a toxic work environment, whether you’re feeling pressured to conform to office culture or working long hours to impress.
But the effects of peer pressure don’t have to be negative. Coworkers can challenge you to get out of your comfort zone, take on new and exciting projects, and follow your dream career path. Sometimes, it’s about collaboration and support rather than pressure to make poor decisions.
Learning the difference between positive and negative peer pressure in the workplace can help you navigate social dynamics and avoid toxic situations.
What is peer pressure?
Peer pressure is the social influence that others have on your decisions, ideas, and values, whether it’s positive or negative.
You might associate peer pressure with adolescence and juvenile social dynamics, but it can come up among adults, too. In fact, people 18–30 years old are less likely to resist social influence than people 14–18.
Most individuals have felt the pressure to conform to social norms, whether that’s to go out on the weekend or cover an extra shift. It can be tempting to do what others tell you to — especially if they’re colleagues or friends.
And because it’s not always overt, chances are you’ve experienced peer pressure without realizing it.
There are two types of peer pressure: direct and indirect.
Direct peer pressure: This type of peer pressure is written or spoken, making it more obvious. For example, colleagues may verbally pressure you to attend an event outside of work and disrespect your decision not to.
Indirect peer pressure: Indirect pressure can appear in body language, nonverbal cues, or unrelated conversations. For example, if colleagues dress in a certain way and give you a snarky side-eye when you show up in casual clothing, you may feel pressured to conform.
Is peer pressure always negative?
Peer pressure usually happens when someone pressures you to do something you don’t want to or are uncomfortable doing. But going beyond your own instincts or beliefs isn’t always negative.
Negative peer pressure can enforce unhealthy habits and steer you away from your values. If peer pressure forces you to compromise your duties or beliefs, there’s a chance it’s negative.
If your coworkers are planning a birthday event for another colleague, they might pressure you to join — and it could be a positive. It’s okay not to want to stay after work hours. But if you say yes, you could deepen work friendships while doing something kind for a colleague.
If peer pressure empowers you to stop bad habits or make positive changes, there’s a good chance it’s positive peer pressure. For example, if you often work late, your colleagues might encourage you to leave the office at a regular time, whether it’s to get rest on your own or join them socially.
In most cases, this is positive peer pressure: your colleagues are encouraging you to improve your work-life balance and take care of yourself.
Like negative peer pressure, positive peer pressure is subjective. It’s all about setting boundaries and making the choice for yourself, instead of doing something because other people want you to.
Understanding the effects of peer pressure
Both types of peer pressure can affect your professional life, but they will look different depending on your values and boundaries. Finding and evaluating examples of pressure in your own life can help you learn how to deal with peer pressure and use it to your advantage.
The positive effects of peer pressure can include:
Motivation: Whether spoken or unspoken, hard-working team members can influence you to have the same outlook. With positive peer pressure, you’ll feel inspired to challenge yourself at work and perform better to keep up with your colleagues.
Improved leadership: Learn to lead by influence, not power. Use positive peer pressure to encourage coworkers to improve their own skills and take on challenges.
A sense of belonging: Positive peer pressure can create community and foster a positive work culture. Embrace this positive influence to collaborate better with your team and make others also feel valued and supported.
On the other hand, the negative effects of peer pressure include the following:
Low confidence levels: Constant criticism or pressure from your teammates can lower your confidence. Negative peer pressure might make you question your decisions and values, lowering your overall self-esteem.
Poor performance: While a certain amount of pressure is healthy and encourages performance, too much peer pressure — even positive peer pressure — can be a bad thing.
You might start to focus on proving your worth to your peers instead of focusing on work, which can lead to performance issues.
Increased anxiety: Trying too hard to conform can make you feel overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious. You might fear what others will say about your decisions and values.
5 tips to deal with peer pressure
It’s not always easy to deal with peer pressure, especially when it’s hard to identify. In the workplace, there’s a difference between encouraging others to do well and encouraging them to change themselves — but the line is thin.
Once you spot negative influences in your workplace, whether it’s toward you or someone else, mitigating them is the next step. Here are five tips to help you deal with the heat and be your authentic self:
1. Set boundaries and communicate them clearly
While you might find it hard to say no to your bosses or colleagues, it’s important to learn to say “No” and set boundaries at work. Set a precedent to make sure your manager or supervisor knows what you will and won’t do.
If you feel pressured to work increased hours without fair compensation, learn to politely and professionally decline. Mention that you have prior commitments or that you’ve been asked to prioritize your current workload over taking on new work.
And if you are open to working more, let them know the conditions, whether that’s overtime pay or other forms of compensation.
2. Plan your response
Think about how you want to react in advance so that you’re better prepared to deal with peer pressure when it arises. Planning a professional response in advance can make it easier to say no when you need to.
If you know that you might be roped into holiday party-planning duties, but you already have a full workload leading up to the holidays, plan how you can gently let your colleagues or manager know.
3. Work on your self-confidence
Recognizing peer pressure means identifying and valuing your own strengths and decisions. Trust your instincts — you know what’s right for you more than anyone else can. If you know that you don’t want to do something, stick with your decision and feel confident in your choices.
If a group of coworkers invites you to an event outside of work, but you don’t feel comfortable doing so, let them know without putting them down in the process. Whether it’s because your gut is telling you not to or because you just don’t want to mix work and life, make a confident choice.
4. Find supporters
Focus on building relationships with colleagues who support and encourage you rather than those who put pressure on you to conform. This is easier said than done — especially on a small team — but creating positive relationships can help you avoid negative ones.
One coworker might be pressuring you to work on a difficult project that you don’t have the time or energy for. Before giving them an answer, speak to your manager and decide how to respond or reprioritize together.
5. Reach out
If colleagues, managers, or other people in the workplace are pressuring you to do something you aren’t comfortable with, speak to human resources or a trusted colleague about it. You don’t have to face peer pressure alone. And if it’s a consistent issue, let someone know so your workplace culture can evolve.
Be true to yourself
Learning how to stand up for yourself is hard — especially when it feels like saying yes is the simpler choice. But whether you’re encouraged to work late or take on an extra project that you don’t have the bandwidth for, recognizing and avoiding the effects of peer pressure is worth it.
It helps you maintain your values and create a more positive environment for everyone involved.