Peer pressure can undo leaders’ hard work

Smoking is, of course, forbidden in every underground coal mine. The reality of how men in different mines dealt with this issue varied, however. The smokers, of whom there was quite a few in the mining population, were fanatical about getting that last cigarette before going underground and about getting that first cigarette after coming out at the end of the shift. Many would hide a cigarette by the elevator doors to be closer to that first puff.

As a foreman, one of my jobs was to occasionally frisk the men for smoking materials as they loaded the elevator. This job became more complex as women entered the work force. The male miners watched us closely to make sure we didn’t discriminate by letting the women go without being thoroughly checked. I checked all pockets as required but tried to be as respectful as possible. In different circumstances, these women could have been my sister, or mother.

The cultures of the three mines in which I worked were quite different. At the first mine, some men covertly smoked. I discovered this fact after I had been there for six months. One day, I asked a fellow miner where two of the other crew members disappeared every day after lunch. His answer was ambiguous. Later the smokers talked to me about their habit and swore me to secrecy

At the second mine, on afternoon and midnight shifts the men were open about smoking even while running machinery. I once saw a shift foreman borrow a cigarette from a buggy runner and light it up in front of everyone. At the third mine, if anyone even thought you were smoking underground, you would be fired immediately and probably tarred and feathered. The biggest factor contributing to these cultural differences was the level of methane in each of the mines. The third mine had periodic build ups of methane, while in the first two mines seldom were any accumulations found

When I began working in the union at my second mine, I was trying to quit smoking and was achieving some success. Previously, however, I sat outside the locker room and smoked my last cigarette before each shift. One day while underground, someone pulled out a cigarette and lit up. The cigarette was in turn passed around. When it got to me I refused saying, “I don’t smoke.” Tom looked at me and said, “You liar! I saw you smoking outside the washroom just the other day.” I tried to explain that I had just quit, but to no avail. They were all suspicious that I was a management agent planted to turn them in for smoking. Therefore, I took a puff and continued smoking for eight more years.

Every workplace has peer pressure. When a group behavioral norm is dangerous or counter to the interests of the organization or the employees or both, tremendous harm could result. When the leader engages in the behavior, it will grow like wildfire. Leaders who facilitate discussions about the hows and whys of positive and negative group behaviors can encourage more good behaviors for the organization and the employees. Otherwise peer pressure will drive the organization’s behaviors.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s completely revised, third printing of The Facilitative Leader: Behaviors that Enable Success, visit his Web site, www.raycomlearning.com or call him at 740-629-4536. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.