I was working with a manufacturing company that was desperately trying to engage its employees. A new COO had been hired, and he was amazed at how disengaged the people on the floor were. He was frustrated by the employee reactions to his new approaches. As a first step in his change effort, he introduced new ways of working to his supervisors, trained them, and supported them. But little changed.
He then tried meeting with the employees directly. He carefully planned his presentations, provided snacks for the meetings, and made sure that everyone was paid for attending his meetings. However, as he spoke, he saw some employees looking out the windows, avoiding eye contact with him. Other employees whispered to each other and chuckled quietly. Still others simply stared off in space. Yes, a few dutiful employees – usually those that sat in the front rows – paid diligent attention. Yet the vast majority of employees were clearly disengaged, and a small portion was deliberately hostile or rude.
After a number of these meetings over several months the executive was complaining to me about his employees and his supervisors. “They just do not understand that we have to change or have no future. I am trying to save all our jobs, but they just do not get it.” I told him that I understood his depression, but that actually I saw great deal of opportunity. He was surprised and thought I did not understand the situation.
So I explained to him the power of deviants. The employees that were openly defiant and chatting among themselves had revealed who they were. If we made allies of them, then they would drive the change for him. His reply was not positive (or printable). I continued to explain to him that the deviants were those who broke the company’s and social cultural norms by being rude, because they were angry. And if they were angry with the company, they cared about the company. And if they cared about the company, then if we listened to what they thought need to be changed, we would learn the keys to engaging most, if not the entire, workforce.
The executive looked at me and said that my logic actually made sense. The next week I met with his team and presented the same logic. They were highly skeptical. I asked only that they hold their judgment for a week or two, let me meet with the deviants, listen to what they had to say, and then make the decision if harnessing the deviant influencing power was a good idea. One of the team members asked why I thought that the deviants had any power to positively influence anyone. I simply replied that they were angry because they knew what drove the disengagement and were powerless to stop it. They were simply people who were willing to voice what everyone else knew, but would not say.
The deviant meeting was a huge success, yet almost derailed at the opening, when the deviants asked the lone executive team member “what the f… was wrong with the executive team?” “Are they really that stupid?” The executive started to reply; I interrupted and said we were here to listen, and yes the executive team was stupid from the deviants’ point of view. “Educate them.” And they did.
Within a month after the meeting, with representative deviants sitting on a Change Management Steering Committee, the new COO had a comprehensive plan to change the manufacturing facility. The plan was lead by the locals on the floor – the deviants – who knew the terrain, the flora, and the fauna. They safely guided the whole facility though the turbulent change process.