Many people believe you must persuade the majority in order for change to occur. This is a myth. Instead, leaders should focus their efforts on a small but influential subgroup known as opinion leaders to get a new idea adopted.
Everett Rogers originally published his theory on the Diffusion of Innovations in 1962. It is a theory that seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures. The book (now in its fifth edition) says diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. The innovation or idea must be widely adopted in order to self-sustain.
In his book, Dr. Rogers tells a fascinating story of how he was prompted very early in his career to study how new ideas were adopted by the masses.
Immediately after graduating with a Ph.D. in sociology, Dr. Rogers accepted a job working with an agricultural extension service in Iowa. His primary responsibility was to work with the local farmers and encourage them to use newly developed varieties of corn which were proven in field tests to produce crops with higher yields, as well as being more disease-resistant. As a result, these strains of corn were more profitable than the current varieties.
Unfortunately, Dr. Rogers quickly learned he couldn’t connect with the farmers. He was a college-educated young man who had never plowed a field or planted corn. All his academic knowledge didn’t mean anything to the farmers. He lacked credibility.
He realized he needed to convince at least one farmer to try one of the new strains. That way, he reasoned, once this crop was proven to have higher yields, all the other farmers would follow suit and adopt the new innovation in corn seed.
He glanced at the clock on the dashboard of his truck. His son, Travis, was the starting pitcher today for his high school team. Travis had traveled with the rest of his team to the field and he was currently completing the last of his warmup pitches. Greg’s wife was going to meet him at the game which was scheduled to start in five minutes. Yet he was still fifteen minutes away from the ball field.
As Greg’s truck crested a small rise on the two-lane road, he spotted a tractor ahead pulling a cultivator. Greg braked hard and slowed to 20 mph, slamming his hands on the steering wheel in frustration. Another hill loomed in the distance. Greg eased the truck into the other lane numerous times, looking for an opportunity to pass the farm vehicle, which blocked his view. Each time, he retreated behind the tractor as a car approached from the opposite direction and passed by. Finally, Greg saw an opening. Ignoring the double-yellow line, he steered his truck around the lumbering farm equipment and quickly accelerated.
Greg didn’t see the oncoming vehicle. It was obscured by a small rise in the road. The last thing Greg remembered on that fateful day was swerving to the left. He watched in what seemed like slow-motion as fence posts were clipped by his front bumper, each one splintering like a matchstick before disappearing over the roof of the truck. At the end of the fence line stood a large locust tree…
Meanwhile, Travis had pitched several innings and was doing well. That’s why Travis was surprised when his coach came to the mound in the middle of the third inning. The coach asked for the ball and told Travis to go see his mother who was sitting in the stands behind the dugout. She was wiping tears from her cheeks while pressing a cell phone to her ear… Continue Reading
Are you aware of the extent that your emotions may affect others? Your verbal and face-to-face cues are surprisingly influential in determining the feelings of those who are listening and observing. This phenomenon is known as emotional contagion. It is recognized by behavioral psychologists as a kind of interpersonal influence.
Studies reveal that emotions (either positive or negative) spread among group members like viruses. Emotional contagion often occurs at a subconscious level. In other words, people are unaware that their emotions may have been affected by another person’s mood with whom they are in close contact.
But it goes even deeper than a transfer of emotions. Research by Sigal Barsade has demonstrated that when emotional contagion takes place, the judgment and quality of group decisions are also impacted. Let’s review a study that shows how the emotions of a single person can significantly impact an entire group’s performance.
Business school students were divided into small groups for a simulated management exercise. Each had to role-play a department head advocating for an employee to get a merit-based increase. At the same time, all the students were part of a “salary committee” negotiating how best to allocate a limited amount of bonus money. In essence, they had to balance getting the most for their own candidate, while maximizing the overall benefit to the company. Each group was also seeded with a confederate (an actor) who was trained to convey one of four different mood conditions:
The researchers were able to identify several effects of emotional contagion. Groups in which the confederate had “spread” positive emotion experienced an increase in positive mood. But the emotional contagion was not limited to a spread of feelings. These groups also displayed more cooperation, less interpersonal conflict, and believed that they had performed better on their task than groups in which negative emotions were spread by the confederate. In addition, groups in which people felt positive emotions made decisions that allocated the available bonus money more equitably.
When the participants were asked why they allocated the funds the way they did, and why they thought their group performed the way it did, they pointed to factors such as their ability to negotiate, or the attributes of the “candidates” they had been assigned. They were completely blind to the fact that their behavior and decisions (and that of their group) had been influenced by the displayed emotion of the confederate.
As a manager, it is likely that some of the biggest challenges you face are those that you consider to be “people problems.”
[I will not be discussing any of the myriad of technical dilemmas of managers – those that are centered on manufacturing methods, research, product development, engineering, technology, logistics, etc].
In this post, I am referring to the kinds of problems where the character of the individual is perceived to be the main reason for a performance issue. For example:
An employee fails to follow work instructions, which results in rework.
A worker is injured when she takes an unnecessary risk to get the job done.
A number of employees are perpetually late when submitting expense reports.
An employee’s timeliness in completing some assignments is unacceptable.
Supervisors do not spend enough time talking to their employees.
If you were faced with any of the challenges listed, what would you do? Many of us would engage the employee in some form of training, coaching, counseling, and/or expectation setting. In other words, we assume that the behavior is largely determined by the individual’s character, personality, or mindset. Unfortunately, we frequently overlook the power of “situations” in determining someone’s behavior.
A number of years ago, Stanford psychologist Lee Ross conducted a literature review on a large number of studies in psychology. He concluded that we have a tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. Ross referred to this tendency as the Fundamental Attribution Error. We make this error when we attribute people’s behavior to the way they are (their character) rather than to the situation they are in (their environment).
Change is hard. Leading others through change can be a daunting
challenge. However, if leaders understand and apply some basic principles, even large organizations can be re-aligned and move in a different direction.
I was thinking about this as I watched a video about operating a large rail yard. I noticed that when an engine hooked up to a long train of cars, the engineer did not simply pull forward after it was coupled. Instead, he backed up first. Then, he slowly accelerated forward. By backing up, the couplings between each rail car were compressed. As a result, when the engine started forward, there was a small amount of slack in the couplings between each car. When the engine started moving forward it was pulling (for an instant) just one car – then two cars, then three cars, and so on.
By following this procedure, the engine was able to eventually pull several hundred cars. If the engineer did not back up first, he would have to pull all the cars at the same time. The total weight of a long train would cause even the strongest engine to lose traction and spin its wheels.
We are influenced by the actions of others more than we may care to admit. Many researchers have confirmed that social influence has a powerful effect on our decisions.
We experience many forms of social influence, although we probably don’t think about it. Perhaps you purchased something after hearing about it from a friend or family member. Or you may have joined an organization or club because someone you know is one of the members. Throughout our lives, we have been powerfully persuaded or casually nudged thousands of times to make a decision or take an action because of social influence.
Indeed, the authors of Influencer contend that there are six sources of influence. They refer to one of these influences as social motivation (although most of us think of this as peer pressure).
Let’s review a recent study by Pedro Gardette of Stanford that supports this concept. He wanted to measure the effect of social influence on the purchasing patterns of airline passengers. Continue Reading