The power of the trusted advocate

Around 20 years ago I was setting up a new scheme for an employer who operated a 3 x 8 hour shift system. The work these folk did was physical and it was dirty. The employer was the UK subsidiary of an overseas business; the UK management had secured funding for a non contributory pension scheme with the option for member contributions. They were quite rightly proud of the deal that they had secured for their employees.

To announce the good news the employer has set up group presentations in the works canteen. The idea was to catch one group before they went on shift at 6am, then the next group as they came off shift at 7am and then the last group at 10pm just before the night shift.

It started badly. There I was at 6 in the morning stood in front of scores of angry (but still relatively clean workers) who didn’t like to be called in early – even if they were being paid for it. I was just getting into the good news of the employer contribution when I noticed that one particularly feisty gentleman, who didn’t much like his employer, was getting increasingly agitated. Eventually he cracked, stood up, angrily tossed his joiners pack back at me and walked out in a loud and somewhat dramatic fashion making it quite clear what he thought of me, my presentation and my pension scheme. After the amusement had died down a few of the wiser heads suggested that I carry on. Their intervention was most welcome and the rest of my  presentation went pretty well.

Somewhat tentatively I moved on to the second presentation. This time the room was full of tired and strangely filthy workers – they were covered in this light film of dust that caught in the back of your throat. I was just about to start when in burst the gentleman from the previous meeting demanding his joiners pack. As luck would have it there it was lying on the table at the front. The pack was snatched from my hand and, to more laughter, my unwitting ally stormed out with a few choice words along the lines of ‘what are you lot looking at?’

The final presentation took place at 10pm just before the night shift. By now I was an object of much amusement as word had spread of the morning’s antics. This was a pretty uneventful session. My friend didn’t put in another appearance.

The strange thing was, despite the trials and tribulations of the presentations, there was a 100% uptake and a large number of voluntary contributions. Now, a non contributory scheme is a smart one to join but, as we all know, that is no guarantee that everyone will do the smart thing. I remain convinced that the reason the scheme was so popular was certainly not because of the brilliance of my presentation, nor was it simply down to the generosity of the employer – although that is clearly a factor. I put it down to the fact that events flushed out the trusted advocates.

The guys at the first meeting who calmed the mayhem down where absolutely key. The very fact that they wanted to be there and wanted to listen, was far more powerful in the eyes of their colleagues than anything I had to say. Now, I don’t know what was said out of the meeting but something must have gone on for our friend to subsequently interrupt a packed meeting and demand his pack. He wasn’t prepared to listen to me but clearly there were people he worked with that he did trust. Just to round it off, he also made a voluntary member contribution. I can assure you –  none of that was my work.

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