Tapping the power of hidden influencers

Posted on by Brandon Klein

Employee resistance is the most common reason executives cite for the failure of big organizational-change efforts.1 Winning over skeptical employees and convincing them of the need to change just isn’t possible through mass e-mails, PowerPoint presentations, or impassioned CEO mandates. Rather, companies need to develop strong change leaders employees know and respect—in other words, people with informal influence. But there’s one problem: finding them. How can company leaders identify those people beforehand to better harness their energy, creativity, and goodwill—and thereby increase the odds of success?

One way we’ve found is “snowball sampling,” a simple survey technique used originally by social scientists to study street gangs, drug users, and sex workers—hidden populations reluctant to participate in formal research. These brief surveys (two to three minutes) ask recipients to identify acquaintances who should also be asked to participate in the research. Thus, one name or group of names quickly snowballs into more, and trust is maintained, since referrals are made anonymously by acquaintances or peers rather than formal identification.2

In business settings, the methodology is easily adapted to better understand the patterns and networks of influence that operate below the radar.3 Indeed, informal influencers exist in every organization, across industries, cultures, and geographies. They are, simply put, people other employees look to for input, advice, or ideas about what’s really happening in a company. They therefore have an outsized influence on what employees believe about the future, as well as on morale, how hard people work, and their willingness to support—or resist—change.

Finding these employees is relatively easy using snowball sampling. Companies can construct simple, anonymous e-mail surveys to ask, for example: “Who do you go to for information when you have trouble at work?” or “Whose advice do you trust and respect?” In shop-floor and retail-store settings where workers don’t have ready access to e-mail, companies can use anonymous paper surveys. By asking employees to nominate three to five people (or more in very large organizations) who are also surveyed, executives can quickly identify a revealing set of influencers across a company. When the names of nominees start to be repeated—often, after only three to four rounds—the survey can end.

The results are often surprising. For example, in our work using the methodology in the aerospace, financial-services, health-care, manufacturing, retailing, and trucking industries (as well as in public-sector settings), we’ve found that influencer patterns almost never follow the organizational chart. Informal influencers exist at all levels of a company and aren’t easily identified or predicted by role or tenure (although relatively few are senior company leaders, as might be expected given their formal influence).

Moreover, we find that even when company leaders believe they know who the influencers will be, they are almost always wrong. At one large North American retailer, for instance, we compared a list of influencers that two store managers created before the survey with its actual results. Between them, the managers overlooked almost two-thirds of the influential employees their colleagues named; worse, both managers missed three of the top five influencers in their own stores. The retailer’s inability to recognize its influencers is no anomaly; we’ve observed a similar pattern in every other industry and geography we’ve studied.

Armed with a better sense of how influence operates, senior executives can begin applying that knowledge in useful ways. For example, they can encourage influencers to help communicate necessary changes, convince skeptical employees of the need for change, or, best of all, do these things as active architects of the program. Indeed, the most powerful way to use hidden influencers is to bring them into such efforts in the earliest stages and to get their input and guidance on planning and direction—as well as help with execution. Changes made with the support of these influential employees are vastly more likely to succeed in the long run than changes delivered from on high.

Consider the experiences of an aerospace company that used snowball sampling to jump-start an operational-change program across its factory network and of a large manufacturer that used this approach to support a major cultural-change initiative. A close look at their experiences suggests four principles useful for other organizations looking to tap into the power of hidden influencers.