Try Peer Pressure: Getting Skeptical Employees to Buy In

By Freeland, David B. | Communication World, March 1994 | Go to article overview

Try Peer Pressure: Getting Skeptical Employees to Buy In


Freeland, David B., Communication World


QUESTION:

Who influences you most in your organization?

A. Your supervisor, or other manager.

B. Someone who works for you, a subordinate.

C. Someone at your level, a peer.

D. It depends.

The legitimate answer is probably D. Yes, what my boss tells me to do is important, and I try to get it done. And yes, I hope my subordinates come up with good ideas that alter my beliefs or actions.

But today's most effective communication managers also recognize the impact peers have on peers. Better still, organizations at the cutting edge of internal communication excellence not only recognize the value of peer influence, but also actively take advantage of it.

We call this advanced use of employee empowerment "contemporary communication practice," or CCP. Understanding its application will help move a communicator into the inner sanctum of strategic communication planning because:

* CCP is a horizontal communication model, and line managers worry most about horizontal communication -- between work shifts, between departments, between plants and offices.

* CCP is strategically positioned as new application of old theory. It uses the organization's natural communication processes to deliver greater believability and buy-in.

Line managers understand CCP's principles instinctively and embrace them enthusiastically.

The magic of CCP

There's the real magic of CCP. Reconsider our opening question. "It depends" is the correct answer, not because "it depends on the subject to be influenced" as might have been first thought, but because "it depends on the environment and circumstances affecting a person's ability to influence."

One of the most common communication models in vogue today is diagrammed as a loop -- upward, downward and through the organization. Better than a rigid topdown model -- characterized by an arrow pointing straight down -- the communication loop implies a continuous flow of information.

As information delivery, the communication loop is an excellent model. Messages are delivered. Also, feedback is gathered, reinforcing follow-up results from analysis of audience reaction, and the loop recycles.

The problem is that organizations don't work smoothly like a single, vertical loop. The typical organization is actually a complex series of horizontal loops. These horizontal loops represent peer groups -- the mail room, the plant down the road, the computer programmers, employees with less than two years' service, female employees, the sweepers on the second shift or the Haitians whose English is a second language.

In large organizations, the array of peer groups is incredibly complex. A peer opinion leader, or more than one, exists in each. Some peer opinion leaders (the female computer programmer from the plant down the road, for example) may exert influence across several loops.

Designers and advisors

CCP links the peer opinion leaders, or enough of them to get the job done, with specific involvement processes. They may be asked to plan and design an improvement that management wants. At the least, they are invited to advise on and pilot-test communication approaches to the chosen issue.

Again, the goal is improved buy-in, first from the peer opinion leaders themselves, next from the peers they influence.

Where are these peer opinion leaders? As "The Playing Field" diagram confirms, they are probably everywhere. Some hate the company and bad-mouth it all the time. Some love the company and stand by it through good times and bad. The majority are in the neutral zone, the group most susceptible to moving toward either the positive or negative pole, depending on how we influence them.

A key consideration: Should a CCP approach include negativists and Pollyannas, or just those in the neutral zone? What happens to our ability to generate some influence when we do not include either the dissenters or our allies? …

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