1 August 2017

Identifying and Empowering Influencers in Your Business

Employee resistance is the biggest barrier to organisational change. But one thing businesses can do to educate and engage is to identify and empower internal influencers. Strategist Liz Appleby tells us how to do it.

When organisational change fails, it’s usually due to employee resistance. And while formal communication can help initiate a response from your employees, it can struggle to win over those all-important hearts and minds. Depending on the culture of your organisation, it’s highly likely your employees spend more time talking about the business during those water-cooler moments than the formal comms pushed out from ‘official’ channels.

You heard it through the grapevine?

The grapevine travels fast, with a wide reach and brings with it both concerns and benefits to businesses. Of course, the big danger is that messages can get twisted and opinions misinformed, leading to conflict and tension during times of change. The flip side is that it can give colleagues the context, time to prepare and reassurance, either through a shared experience with peers, or as a result of different perspectives. It provides them with an outlet for feelings to be openly expressed while unpicking topics in their own time, on their own terms, in their own language in a ‘safe’ environment, away from the management lens.

Tapping in at the right time

You can’t stop the grapevine, and you don’t have to. By channelling your inner Marvin Gaye, monitoring and tapping into it at the right time, internal communications and HR pros can use it as brilliant way to uncover insight into employee perception, interpretation, morale and ‘real life’ day-to-day concerns around particular issues. This is where identifying and empowering influencers in the organisation can be helpful.

3% of employees are able to initiate, drive and influence conversations that reach 90% of peers

Understanding your internal influencers

An influencer is someone other colleagues look to for input, support, advice, ideas and validation. They therefore have an outsized influence on what employees believe about the future, as well as on morale, how hard people work and crucially, their willingness to support—or resist—change. Their authenticity is key to their influence, which is achieved over time, through no formal accreditation or management endorsement. Influencers only remain influential so long as they remain credible. Work with your influencers, not have them work for you – this is the most effective way to turn them into your ambassadors.

So how do you uncover your true influencers?

McKinsey claims finding these people is relatively easy using snowball sampling via simple anonymous email surveys to ask, for example:

· Who do you go to for information when you have trouble at work?

· Whose advice do you trust and respect?

Anonymous paper surveys can be used for those with no email access. By asking employees to nominate three to five people (or more in very large organisations) who are also surveyed, leaders can quickly identify a prolific set of influencers across their organisation. When the names of nominees start to be repeated—often, after only three to four rounds—the survey can end.

Using this methodology across a variety of industries, McKinsey concludes the following about informal influencers:

· They exist at all levels of a company and aren’t easily identified or predicted by role or tenure

· Relatively few are senior company leaders (surprising, given their formal influence)

· Company leaders who believe they know who the influencers will be are almost always wrong!

The final point above goes so far to explain why the two other methodologies often substituted for this – having managers select who they perceive as influencers, and having HR and communications staff brainstorm names in workshops – often miss the mark.

Companies that used snowball sampling to support their change programmes have seen influencer initiatives improve bottom up innovation, safety, efficiency and customer experience, leading to increases in sales, market share and margins. Employee-satisfaction scores also improved, in large part thanks to increased levels of collaboration and empowerment.

Maximising your influencers

Not all influence is positive and it’s just as important to identify the negative influencers as the positive ones. In both cases, the key to success is to involve them early in the planning, not just the execution. Empower them with information and the opportunity to contribute, ahead of everyone else. Armed with the truth, influencers can cut through the noise, rally support and stop the rumour mill in its tracks – or even before it has a chance to get going!

Consult negative influencers early on to get a feel for what you’re up against and engage them with how their challenges might be overcome. Can you cut negativity off at the pass? Work with them to test ideas and shape a comms approach that tackles these barriers head on. You might even find the very fact you’re involving them helps to soften their cynicism.

In times of change and uncertainty it is always better to say something than nothing at all. And if that ‘something’ is bad news then better to make sure the influencers in your organisation have their facts straight.

5 things to remember for identifying and empowering influencers in your organisation:

1. Don’t assume you automatically know who they are – gather insight and cast your net wide – cross-region, function, role, level

2. Give equal attention to positive and negative influencers – both can be useful

3. Involve them early – co-create not cascade

4. Create a community – enable knowledge sharing and debate between negative and positive influencers

5. Don’t try to influence the influencers – keep it real!

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