Sunday, 30 March 2008

How opinion leaders may be ineffective

The word "Champion" gives me shivers when I hear it as a label given to someone by senior management who then overlays their expectations on this person to lead the change of a topic with their peer group. For example, in healthcare, we get clinical champions for colorectal cancer, or nurse champions for infection control. Often these individuals are identified because they have participated in projects or shown interest and leadership in their work, within their peer group.

So what happens once they get "promoted" to champion?

Before answering this question, some background. I am aware of much research on the topic of opinion leadership. Much of this is contested and conflicting. In fact, come of the recent research questions whether they exist at all and other research points out they may exist, however, the manipulation of them may be impossible, for many reasons I'll not cover here. So or the purposes of this short note I am assuming you're interested in the concept because you like the use of it and wonder whether and how it works for you.

In colloquial terms, I do find there are two types of opinion leaders. The promiscuous type and the powerful ones. The first category are those who have a lot to say. They have strong opinions and will talk to many people, within and without their per group, about those opinions. The extent to which others are influenced by those opinions I feel is rather weak. This may be because of the volume of them, the weakness of targetting or the number of different ideas discussed. In contrast, the more powerful opinion leader is the one who shares a little less and builds more credibility with focus. More of an expert this person is also a bit more interested in ensuring the ideas are successful in the workplace. So the followers will place credibility in the ideas this person speaks about or actions that are taken. Obviously there are some grey areas in between these two steareotypes I have described above.

So what happens to the 'champion' role?

If the person who is placed in this role comes from the more promiscuous type of opinion leadership orientations, I feel they will start with less credibility amongst their peers. From the management perspective they may appear quite (or indeed very) effective, as they may be able to maintain a high degree of communication. The issue is whether this communication transfers into a change of behavior. At best it does. At worst it creates noise in the system and a consequential immunity to further change.

For the more powerful and expert opinion leader, the transfer to 'champion' often ends in the loss of credibility. The individual is seen by their peers as having 'gone over to the other side'. The very factor that gave them their power is then lost. Perhaps they would have been best left in their place and given support to carry out their social leadership role, without interference.

There is theory and research, and there is practice. I read the theory and research and spend time in organisations and working on projects. My difficulty is connecting the theory and the practice when it comes to opinion leadership. I'm starting to realise that the theories are very limited and maybe it is time to do some reframing by looking very closely at what actually happens in practice.

And maybe it's a good idea to work with the social system rather than to mess with it.

(c) 2008, Sarah Fraser

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