Finding Influencers in Your Organization

Influencers are the single largest predictor of success for any change strategy. They have long been used in the marketing world, but internal communicators are just now scratching the surface.
Inside an organization, influencers are strong change leaders that employees know and respect. These are not the leaders on the organization chart, but employees with informal influence.
Studies in behavioral change show that success depends on getting a critical mass, typically 30 percent, onboard with the change. The reasons that getting to the 30 percent point works are many, but include:
  • New ways of behaving and thinking become self-supporting. Enough people are joining in  to encourage, support and coach each other in the changed ways.
  • Transformation feels inevitable. Those who haven’t changed see the critical mass behaving in the new way as a majority.
  • All people can be reached. Tapping into your influencers is the fastest way to reach everyone. This critical mass of people has close personal connections with the remaining population.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a New York Times bestseller on this entire premise, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
According to Gladwell, the percentage required to change the direction of a crowd is usually much smaller than most of us assume and the notion of tipping points can be used to explain why change often happens quickly and unexpectedly.
In the same way as a virus can spread rapidly through a population, so too can behavioral change, particularly within a group. For instance, a small action by one individual within a crowd can influence the actions of other individuals within the crowd, and so on, until the behaviour becomes widespread. Thus, small, initial changes have the potential to make significant differences overall.
The short cut to getting to the 30 percent, is to identify the influencers, get their buy-in and let them transform their colleagues.
Management always thinks they know who the influencers are. Every time. Research from McKinsey & Company shows that influencers almost never follow the organizational chart. Informal influencers exist at all levels of a company and can’t be identified or predicted by role or tenure -– although few are senior leaders, as you might expect given their formal influence.
Across industries, studies show that if asked to name influencers, managers overlook two-thirds of the influential employees their colleagues named -– worse, managers miss three of the top five influencers at their own location. So, it is worth taking the time to ask employees.
How to find them:
The easiest way to find influencers is to do an anonymous survey sent via email. You need one or two simple questions. Two possibilities:
  • Who do you go to for information or advice at work?
  • At work, whose advice do you trust and respect?
Before the survey, managers should share with employees that the survey is being sent and explain that corporate communications is working to create a group of thought partners. This group will help you understand employee issues and concerns.
Once you send the survey, watch for which names get mentioned the most. Review the final list will to ensure diversity of roles, locations and departments. It is also important to vet the names with local managers and HR – because not all influence is positive and not all influencers want change. Keep the names of the negative influencers to test your program or communications against – they can give valuable insights about how to convert skeptics.
Turn your influencers into thought partners:
Once you have the list, map out the locations and departments that surfaced. Do you see silos? Are employees getting information across locations and working groups? If not, one of your objectives can be to create conversations between influencers to build collaboration.
Now ask your influencers for help as thought partners. Many influencers will be eager to help and view the experience as an honor, but goodwill dissipates if they feel coerced.
Engaging influencers as thought leaders is critical to success. They can’t become “mouthpieces” for change, or their informal authority dwindles in the eyes of their peers. Instead, include them in creating the right solutions. Get their input on an initiative or change strategy as early as possible. If they have input and help build the program, your odds for success grow.
Once you draft a communications plan, bring the group back together to get feedback on key messages and possible campaign strategies. Once you have creative options for the campaign, pull in your negative influencers to get their feedback — if a slogan or key message can be twisted to put the company in a negative light — this will be the group that points it out.


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