Influencer QA

Influencing Unprofessional Dress

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.



QDear Crucial Skills,

I started my job a couple years ago and immediately observed a decided lack of commitment to dressing professionally. I didn’t want to make this an issue at the beginning of my tenure, as there were bigger fish to fry, but now I feel it’s time to address it.

We have seven offices, so multiple players are involved instead of one or two employees. I’ll have to convince the seven office managers of the importance of professional dress first then work with them to encourage their employees to dress professionally. How can I start a crucial conversation and motivate employees at various levels to dress professionally?

Dress for Success

A Dear Dress for Success,

Well, you came to either the right or the wrong guy for this question. I abhor suits. I often wear them for speeches but as soon as I get to the airport, I find a lockable door and eject it as fast as I can. So I’m going to both respond to your question and question your question.

I assume you are not the owner or CEO of the company and that your challenge is peer persuasion—not gaining compliance with your own policy. It sounds as though you have some decision-making authority over your own office but that peers manage the others. With that assumption, here are some thoughts.

You might be wrong. Before trying to motivate employees to dress professionally, I’d suggest you consult your colleagues and come to Mutual Purpose. Share your view of the relationship between dress and performance then invite them to share theirs. Is this an industry norm? Are people dressing casually or inappropriately? What is the right level of dress for the image you want to project? What makes customers comfortable and reinforces your credibility? What is just personal preference and might be irrelevant? Be sure to make it safe for your colleagues to express any view and encourage them to weigh in with feedback they might have received or data they can cite to help you make a fact-based decision on the policy.

Agree on a test. If you mutually conclude that dress might improve employee performance or customer perception, try a pilot. Perhaps you can do it in your office since you’re most interested in the concept. Or perhaps it would be best to do it elsewhere as the results will be more trusted if others do the test. Agree on how you’ll evaluate the pilot. For example, you may agree to start with your office and move to a new code for three months then survey customers to test the reaction. Be sure to agree on the design of the survey in advance so you aren’t accused of manipulating the data to support your thesis.

Engage employees. Assuming your peers agree there is potential merit, you next need to take up the issue with your team. This might be tough. Casual is always easier. Plus, a different dress code could be expensive to those whose wardrobes don’t include more formal attire. Be sensitive to this issue and find a way to adapt to people’s economic constraints. In our Influencer book, we describe three ways you can help people change their minds—verbal persuasion, vicarious experience, and direct experience. In this case, I’d suggest the latter. Get a handful of opinion leaders from your team and take them on a field trip to a place with different dress standards. Design the field trip in a way that lets them observe the effects of professional dress, interview some of those who are practicing it, etc. Then bring them back to debrief with your larger team.

Be flexible. I’ll end where I started. I’m a jeans and sneakers kind of guy, but I also understand that clothes are part of the message so I dress up when needed. I’d suggest that even if better dress is the right answer, you could create a nuanced policy that required it when it was useful. For example, some companies have a policy of dressing up for outward facing meetings. In other words, when clients will be in the office or you’re going to theirs, dress up. When not visiting with a client or customer, dress casual.

I wish you the best as you work your way through this. Drop me a line when you decide what to do and see how it works. I’d love to hear the postscript!


Influencer QA

Author Opinion on Current Events: The Media is an Accomplice in School Shootings: A Call for a "Stephen King" Law

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.



The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are solely the opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of VitalSmarts.

Monday I watched in horror with most of America as the story of the Chardon High School shooting unfolded. But my horror was twofold. The first misery came as I heard the names and numbers of victims and thought about the pain they and their families will endure for the rest of their lives. The second dose came as I held my breath—hoping and praying the media wouldn’t amplify the violence.

But they did.

They did exactly what they needed to do to influence the next perpetrator to lock and load.

1. They named the shooter.
2. They described his characteristics.
3. They detailed the crime.
4. They numbered the victims.
5. They ranked him against other “successful” attackers.

School shootings are a contagion. And the media are consistent accomplices in most every one of them.

There’s really no useful debate on the point. The consensus of social scientists since David Phillips’ groundbreaking work in 1974 is that highly publicized stories of deviant and dangerous behavior influence copycat incidents. Phillips’ and scores of subsequent studies showed, for example, that suicide rates spike in the week after an inappropriately publicized celebrity suicide. Contrast this trend with no increase in suicides in the week following a media strike that unintentionally suppresses such coverage.

The same is true of school massacres. On Groundhog Day, February 2, 1996 a 14-year-old boy walked into his Moses Lake, Washington, Junior High School algebra class and started shooting. He killed his teacher, two classmates, and severely wounded another student. The media obsessed over the color of his clothes, his insidious planning, and the inventory of his arsenal. In addition, they practically offered a how-to guide for concealing and deploying weapons in a coat. But what got the most attention was the fact that after shooting his teacher, he delivered a line from the Stephen King novel Rage with charismatic panache. Suddenly, the invisible adolescent was a cultural icon. Within a week, another shooting occurred that clearly echoed that of February 2. Then another on February 19. Another on March 11. And yet another on March 13. More than one of the apparent copycats also cited King’s novel as a creative resource in their crimes.

Of course, when the Rage pattern became clear, the media scurried to get King’s reaction. King could have defended his right to free speech and used the “guns don’t kill, people do” argument—claiming the problem was the perpetrators’ mental health not his book.

But he didn’t. He apologized for writing the book. In an interview he said, “I took a look at Rage and said to myself, if this book is acting as any sort of accelerant, if it’s having any effect on any of these kids at all, I don’t want anything to do with it.” Then he insightfully added, “Even talking about it makes me nervous.” King understands that attention is influence. He asked his publishers to pull Rage from publication and let it fall out of print shortly thereafter.

The challenge our society faces is balancing the need to not cause additional mayhem through known influence methods with the right of free speech. As is the case with all complicated issues, there are multiple values to consider here.

It’s time to ask if we should find a way to stifle such reports, limit the anguish, and disallow one form of speech, for the greater good.

One thing is for certain—those who write about, talk about, televise, and otherwise report on school shootings need to take their lead from Mr. King by examining their own motives and methods—given that when news outlets include certain details of a crime in their reports that act as a virtual workshop for would-be acolytes, they are likely to incite similar actions.

Surely, media specialists feel the tension between their own values and staying in business. And yet, they must realize that their goals to get more air time, sell more ad space, and earn more attention don’t justify the potential to create new pain and sorrow.

The obvious first step is to talk openly about all sides of the issue—including the latest research. Media outlets need to examine their own tactics, impact, and motives. It would be wonderful if the entire industry started regulating certain aspects of what is reported. This could only be accomplished through collaboration between competitive entities and so far, we haven’t seen any progress in this direction.

Perhaps it’s time for legislators to start their own dialogue. Perhaps we now have enough scientific evidence to suggest that it’s time to take action before more lives are lost. It’s time we matched responsibility with influence.

Influencer QA

Speaking Up For the Patient

David Maxfield 

David Maxfield is coauthor of two New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything and Influencer.



Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I struggle with the attitude I find in acute care hospitals in regards to pain. Sometimes I hear employees and others discussing a patient’s pain and their need for treatment in a very judgmental, non-mission oriented manner. I am struggling to find the right words to speak up on behalf of that patient and to use words that might resonate to improve acceptance of all patients’ pain reports.

For example, standing outside an ICU room during rounds, the nurse will report the patients’ unrelieved pain. Invariably, the pharmacist or physician will comment about “addiction” or “drug seeking.” By the end of the discussion, almost everyone has made a disparaging comment and dismissed the patient’s pain. I have to speak up. I became a nurse to help end suffering, not to encourage it during one of the most stressful and painful periods in a person’s life. Can you help me find the right words to speak up to physicians who dismiss a patient’s pain?

Pained by Unfair Judgments

A Dear Pained,

Thanks for noticing and caring. All of us are likely to be patients someday, and knowing that caregivers will help to reduce our pain and discomfort is very reassuring. So, what can you do if you aren’t satisfied with your colleague’s attention to pain management?

First, try to avoid feelings of righteous indignation. Try for humility instead. I know this is tough when you don’t think others are showing a caring attitude, but do your best to model a combination of confidence and respect without making accusations.

You described the problem very nicely. You made it clear that this isn’t a problem with a single caregiver or a single kind of pain management issue. Instead, it’s more systemic and involves multiple caregivers and multiple differences of opinion.

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. Since there is too much variance in how caregivers manage pain, the first focus needs to be on the pain-management protocol itself. Then you can more easily improve compliance with the protocol.

Structural Motivation. You might think improving your hospital’s pain-management protocol is too big a job for you to take on, and you’re right. Fixing this problem will require a team approach, but I think you’ll discover you have many willing allies.

Patients’ hospital experiences are now measured using a nation-wide survey called HCAHPS which asks specifically about pain control. Hospital’s scores are public and beginning in March these scores will impact the reimbursement they receive from Medicare and Medicaid. Poor scores can cost a hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This structural incentive has the attention of hospital leaders everywhere. Most are actively seeking ways to improve their hospital’s scores and improving pain management is one of the strategies that has been shown to work. I think you will find hospital leaders very receptive to any improvement ideas you have. In fact, you may discover that your hospital already has a task force working on pain management.

Structural Ability. Your hospital isn’t alone in looking for ways to improve pain management. Many talented organizations, such as the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, are developing and testing strategies that work.

Involve your manager and others in your unit, or enlist a larger team from across the hospital, to develop a formal pain-management plan. Make sure you involve physicians who will help develop and champion this plan as well. Most pain-management systems include the following common elements:

Patient- and family-centered. Involve patients and their families in assessing pain levels and learning what their goals are for pain control.
Documented pain plan. Document pain levels, patient goals, and the pain plan on a white board in the patient’s room where it will be visible to the patient and caregivers.
Track and update. Check in with the patient at least hourly. Update the white board.
Analyze and adjust. Update the pain-management plan at least daily, based on whether the current plan has been working. Record any changes to the plan on the white board.

Make sure every caregiver understands and commits to the new system. Use your manager and physician champions to reach out to every caregiver who needs to understand and employ it.

Personal Ability. Once you have a system in place and have secured verbal buy-in to the system, it is important to cue, remind, and hold others accountable for managing patients’ pain in caring ways. Here are some simple reminders:

“Remember, we need every patient to answer ‘always’ on the HCAHPS survey.”

“I think you forgot to check the white board.”

“Could you help me with this patient? Her pain-management plan hasn’t helped her today. I think she needs you.”

If you get pushback on these simple reminders, you can escalate by explaining the gap between what the person has committed to and what you’re seeing:

“We all agreed to put the patient’s goals at the center of the plan. What you just said about drug-seeking behavior sounds like you disagree with the patient.”

“We all committed to use the white board and to keep it current. Are you changing your mind about that?”

If a caregiver continues to resist following the system, then bring in the manager or physician champion for your unit. I hate to say it, but sometimes the messenger is just as important as the message. Having a senior physician take the person to coffee and discuss the issue in a factual and friendly way will do a lot to get his or her buy-in. Ask the champion to close the loop with you so you can have confidence the person will accept your reminders in the future.

VitalSmarts has done quite a bit of work with hospitals that are working to improve their patient experiences and HCAHPS scores. We have a web seminar coming up on March 8 to discuss this very topic. I encourage you to join.