David Maxfield is coauthor of three New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Dear Crucial Skills,
Here in Australia, we are currently undertaking a safety culture change initiative in my company using your Influencer model. I have an opinion leader who is quite negative about most things, including the Influencer strategies. This opinion leader was involved with the creation and rollout of the Vital Behaviors Roadmap and his positive support would lend great credibility to the program within his crew. How can I harness this person’s passion for positive influence rather than negative?
Searching for a Solution
Thanks for an interesting question. What can we do when an influential employee is using his or her influence to undermine an important initiative?
I’ve worked closely on an initiative similar to the one you are describing. I can use it to illustrate the broader challenge presented by unsupportive opinion leaders. I’ll begin with a thumbnail sketch of this situation, which will likely sound very familiar.
This organization operates open-pit and underground mines. While the firm already has a positive record for workplace safety, the goal of the initiative is to eliminate severe injuries and deaths.
The company’s focus has been on changing behaviors, because the majority of accidents happen when drivers speed, when construction workers fail to tie off ladders, and when operators take shortcuts.
Herein lies the challenge: we, and the employees we work with, often know what the best safety practices are, but fail to follow them. For example, how many of us stay within speed limits when we drive, or tie off ladders when we clean rain gutters around our roofs?
The key to changing these behaviors is broad social support. It’s essential that peers watch out for each other, remind each other, and hold each other accountable for following safety practices. Building this social support will be vital to your initiative.
The company took pains to involve two groups of people: formal leaders and informal leaders. Formal leaders include every executive, manager, supervisor, and foreman. All of these leaders have to be on board.
Informal leaders include the opinion leaders you referred to in your question. Here is how they identified these opinion leaders: they asked everyone who works in the area to answer the following question: “If you were facing a challenging issue at work and you had time to ask for help, who would you go to for the best, most trustworthy advice?” People could name up to three of their coworkers.
They focused on the people who were named most often by their peers. And let me explain what I mean by “most often.” Two-thirds of the employees weren’t named by anyone, or were named by only one or two of their peers. These people are not opinion leaders. However, there was a small group—about 8 percent—who were named by fifty or more of their peers. These people are true opinion leaders.
Opinion leaders are either your most powerful allies or your most powerful opponents. They are never in between, because, whether you like it or not, people go to them for their opinions and they will be swayed by what these opinion leaders say.
So, what do you do when an opinion leader isn’t on board?
1. Take the opinion leader’s concerns seriously. If an opinion leader has concerns, you can be sure others share them. Try to use the opinion leader as a leading indicator or early warning signal. We often involve opinion leaders in focus groups, where the whole purpose is to surface concerns early.
2. Be open to modifying your approach. You can be fairly confident that the opinion leader shares your goal for eliminating serious injuries and deaths. His or her concerns almost certainly involve specific strategies and tactics. Look for common ground and more effective approaches. Opinion leaders tend to be more committed and informed than their peers. Involve them in finding better solutions.
3. Respect the opinion leader role. Don’t try to co-opt opinion leaders or demand they toe the company line. Part of their credibility comes from their independence and you don’t want to undermine that.
4. Support the opinion leader’s right to be skeptical. You want the opinion leader’s understanding and buy-in, not his or her obedience. Explain the big picture reasons for strategies, and be flexible on the forms his or her support takes. In addition, accept that there are differences you won’t be able to bridge. Focus on areas of agreement, instead of demanding total agreement. A skeptic who supports your initiative is the most powerful supporter you can hope to have.
5. Don’t barter for the opinion leader’s support. Some opinion leaders want to include broader or unrelated issues in a sort of negotiation for their support. Don’t go down this path. It turns your safety issue into a commodity, instead of a moral purpose.
6. Ask other opinion leaders to help convince the opinion leader. Sometimes you are the wrong person to have influence with an opinion leader. Perhaps you are a part of an untrusted group, or you have a bad reputation with this person. If you suspect this is the case, ask others to take the lead in gathering and responding to the opinion leader’s concerns.
7. If necessary, remove the opinion leader—but only for cause. You never terminate an opinion leader because of their lack of support. Unlike formal leaders, informal leaders’ support is always voluntary. However, they do need to follow safety policies and keep others safe as well. Workplace safety is a universally accepted and universally mandated part of the workplace. It’s not optional for anyone.
I hope these ideas give you tools you can use as you work with this opinion leader. The work can be slow and frustrating, but getting opinion leaders on your side is the key to your success.