The Notion of the Referent Group

By Marshall Goldsmith

Over the years, I have had a series of profound epiphanies about how to help people move forward in their work, and their life. These are the concepts of —

  • the referent group
  • the notion of feedforward
  • stakeholder-centered coaching
  • the business plan review
  • the “what’s next” weekend
  • daily questions
  • building a coaches community (called 100 coaches)

Here I’d like to explore the referent group

In the mid-1970s, Roosevelt Thomas, Jr., the author and leading speaker on diversity in the workplace, introduced me to his idea of referent groups. 

At the time, I had a narrow appreciation of its significance. I considered it a concept that Thomas devised to educate corporate America about the need for diversity in the workplace. Roosevelt believed that an organization was richer and stronger when it included a wide range of differences. 

The referent group concept was the structure he created to help people understand that if an individual identified with a particular referent group, his or her desire for approval from this group shaped his or her behavior and performance. 

People would do almost anything to be accepted by the tribe they identify with. Part of Thomas’s structure for corporate America was a distinction between what he called preference and requirement. A person’s preferences—how they dress, the music they like, the political views they hold—are not relevant if the same person meets or exceeds the requirements of the job. If leaders could accept that distinction—that a direct report’s preferences don’t have to correlate with the job’s requirements—it would allow a lot of differences and eccentricities in the workplace. 

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

Leaders would be less aggrieved by superficialities, less obsessed with conformity, and their direct reports would feel more welcome. It was a brilliant insight, aimed at enlightening a leader’s point of view about individuals on a team. 

I saw the concept from the viewpoint of how it helped executives become better leaders. I failed to appreciate the power of referent groups from the other side, namely, the viewpoint of the referent group members. 

I wasn’t adept at applying the concept beyond the workplace or, for that matter, in my own life. For decades, I’d been frustrated by otherwise intelligent people whose social values and knowledge base didn’t make sense to me. How could they believe things that, at least to me, x were so ignorant and illogical? My confusion persisted well into my 60s. 

Then I recalled Roosevelt Thomas’s main point: If you know a person’s referent group—to whom or what they feel deeply connected, whom they want to impress, whose respect they crave—you can understand why they talk and think and behave the way they do. You don’t have to agree with them, but you are less likely to dismiss them as brainwashed or uninformed. At the same time, you realize that your views may appear equally incomprehensible to them. 

It made me more tolerant, almost empathic. It also started me thinking about the utility of referent groups. 

Was there a structure into which I could fold Roosevelt’s insight to help people change their behavior? 

Roosevelt Thomas was a giant onto whose shoulders I should have climbed much sooner. 

Marshall Goldsmith Meme
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