Have you ever wondered why every time Jennifer Lawrence tripped and fell over, almost no one said – ‘clumsy fool’? On the contrary, her popularity seemed to take an upswing every time she made a blunder. She tripped four times on the red carpet before people started suspecting that something may be amiss. I think she had smart publicists. Every time they noticed that her popularity was dipping, they probably said – ‘Jen, it’s time to trip over your feet again.’ You possibly think I’m crazy and maybe I am but before you judge, let me introduce you to the Pratfall effect.
The Pratfall effect is a phenomenon where people who are considered highly competent are found to be more likable when they commit a small blunder. The effect borrows its name from the expression ‘pratfall’ that means falling on one’s behind. Jennifer Lawrence maybe took the word a little too literally. Blunders like these humanize individuals who may otherwise be perceived as super humans. It makes them easier to relate to and consequently increases their attractiveness. One caveat though, this effect is closely connected to the perceived competence of the person. If JLaw wasn’t an exceptional actress, these blunders wouldn’t be taken as kindly. It is highly likely that she be publicly ridiculed for being clumsy and her popularity scores would have dipped. She definitely wouldn’t have tripped four times and counting. Needless to say, we folks in HR can do plenty with this.
Marketing already leverages this effect to boost sales. Research on the potential positive effects of “blemishes” in product suggests that under certain situations, desirability and eventual purchase decisions both increased after presenting a product blemish. ZenithOptimedia replicated an unpublished study about cookies by leading consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier that asked 626 nationally representative people which of the two cookies, pictured below, they preferred. The cookies are the same apart from one small difference: one has a rough edge, the other a perfectly smooth one.
The cookie on the left, with the rough edge, was the overwhelming favourite: 66% preferred it. The small imperfection didn’t detract from its appeal, but boosted it. Here are a few more examples: “Good things come to those who wait” (Guinness), “Reassuringly expensive” (Stella Artois) and “Naughty but nice” (Lyons cream cakes) all made their core claim more believable by admitting a weakness.
How does HR leverage this effect? Successful leaders within an organization are often viewed as unapproachable and perfectionists. One way to humanize them and make them more likable is to leverage the pratfall effect. I am not asking you to encourage leaders within your organization to spill coffee or fall over their feet. An excellent way to make them more endearing is to have them talk about the mistakes they’ve made in their career. I spoke about Fuckup Nights in my last post. If you hold these in your organization, successful leaders make for excellent speaker choice. However, exercise caution. Put a leader not considered capable on the podium and their reputation may just take an irreversible hit.
The effect also holds true for yourself. Maybe try spilling some coffee and apologizing profusely. You may just gain some popularity points. 🙂