Internal influencers reach more employees than the boss

Key employees have a greater influence on their colleagues than do senior leaders, research shows.

At a company where I once worked, the president rebuked my plan for communicating an organizational change designed to ensure everybody knew about it. “If I want to make sure everyone knows something,” he said, “I know exactly which five secretaries to tell.”

He succumbed to the idea that admins are inherently gossips, an offensive perspective, and his failure to adopt a strategy for communicating led to a widespread lack of awareness about the change. But he was actually on to something. The idea of the right five people has a lot of merit.

I don’t encounter many internal communications departments that include internal influencers in their plans. If you know who they are, and whom they influence, though, tapping into these employees as a discrete audience can support, accelerate, and expand your internal reach.

I first read about internal influence networks in a Harvard Business Review article sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s; in any case, I haven’t been able to find it. I was able to apply it for the first time during an engagement while working in the communications practice at a human resources consulting firm. We were about to communicate some very controversial changes that could throw the organization into chaos. We mapped the influencers in the company and brought them into a series of meetings where we shared the situation and our planned communications. They offered their critiques. We incorporated nearly every suggestion they made, even if we didn’t necessarily like them; it made them owners of the message.

We didn’t tell them they had been chosen for these meetings because they’re influencers. Most of them didn’t even know the other people in the room. As far as they knew, they were randomly selected for focus groups and agreed to keep the information we gave them confidential. When the news finally did break, though, as we had thought, employees sought out their local influencer for a read on the situation. And, also as expected, they supported the change and even helped explain it. In the end, the change produced little tension.

There was no need to get the word out in this case; it spread like wildfire. In the case of that old company president, though, the word didn’t spread despite a special edition of the company magazine and many formal and informal communications by company leaders.

It turns out that’s because being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean people want to share what you say; a seat at the table doesn’t make your pronouncements go viral. Internal influencers can do that, if you know who they are.

Leandro Herrero proved the concept in research at a pan-European company with a staff of 1,200. The hypothesis: Hyper-connected top influencers would do better at getting the word out than top management. Herrero, an organizational development consultant, looked at three degrees of separation for the experiment: your immediate network, second-step connections of the immediate network, and the connections of those connections. In a blog post, Herrero details the results (which I’ve slightly edited):

By step one, the leadership team had a reach of 21 people whilst the influencers had 104. By step two, (connections of the immediate connections) the leadership team had about 100, while influencers achieved three times more, around 300 people. In step 3, it was 250 for the leadership team and 450 for the influencers. By step three, the five-person leadership team was able to reach 27 persons of the workforce, while the five top influencers reached 49 percent, almost half of the workforce.

In his post, Herrero notes that this shouldn’t surprise anyone in light of the Edelman Trust Barometer, which routinely shows people are twice as likely to trust someone like themselves than someone in charge. In this case, that resulted in nearly twice the reach.

Identifying and mapping influencers is a tedious process, even with the social tools they may be using in your company, and they remain a moving target as people come and go and organizational configurations undergo shifts. But with that map, you can put processes in place that spread your messages much farther than traditional forms of communication.

A version of this article first appeared on Shel Holtz’s blog.

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