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Influencers Are the Secret Agents of a Successful Change Process

In a change process, there are multiple actors that can impact the outcome. The core roles that people usually consider are the change leader who sets the vision and desired outcomes, change practitioners who evaluate operational elements required for a change to be successful, and the sponsors who provide executive direction and build coalitions.

When the change rolls out, it’s up to people managers to interpret and communicate how the change will impact their team. But once employees begin engaging in the process and try to adopt changes to their way of doing things, there’s another actor that can have a big impact on a change process “under the radar”, and that’s the influencer. While those holding core roles are change agents, influencers often operate as secret agents, whose support or resistance to a change process may go undetected/underappreciated by the change team.

An influencer is anyone who garners trust, with the credibility and network (often informal) to influence the attitudes and behaviors of others – peers, subject matter experts, champions or sponsors, and even people on the change team. Their influence is most often NOT based on any formal organization hierarchy or job title.

They can have different powers of influence, such as:

  • Expertise: They are sought out and followed based on their expertise, information sharing, and advice. Often, they are described as the “go to” people.
  • Driving momentum: They energize others and get people excited about ideas and projects easily. They foster an environment of possibility.
  • Bridging: They span the gaps across groups and act as a connector between diverse groups or points of view. They are viewed as someone who is capable of understanding and translating competing opinions or needs.
  • Community building: They build informal networks around specific domains or across teams based on similar interests. These communities may or may not be known formally. They are viewed as a leader in these communities.

In a large study of change initiatives in the NHS in the UK, some key themes emerged related to influencers:

  1. Change agents who were central in the organization’s informal network had a clear advantage, regardless of their position in the formal hierarchy.
  2. People who bridged disconnected groups and individuals were more effective at implementing dramatic reforms, while those with cohesive networks were better at instituting minor changes.
  3. Being close to “fence-sitters,” who were ambivalent about a change, was always beneficial. But close relationships with resisters were a double-edged sword: Such ties helped change agents push through minor initiatives, but hindered major change attempts.

This same study found that change agents who are also influencers have a higher chance of success, especially under the following conditions:

  • They were central in the informal network, regardless of their position in the formal hierarchy.
  • The nature of their network (either bridging or cohesive) matched the type of change they were pursuing.
  • They had close relationships with fence-sitters, or people ambivalent about the change.

Empowering influencers to increase the odds of success

If you can empower these secret agents, you can increase the chances of success for your change process in most cases. The goal is to get them to be advocates who will then use their influence, trust, and credibility for the cause.

Positive influencers are people who are well-connected across teams, who are trusted by peers and managers, and who are likely to be open-minded about change, who are willing to learn, and who have skills/knowledge to contribute to the change project.

However, not all influencers are positive and not all of them have the skills/knowledge for a specific change project. Negative influencers have the same powers, but they will use them to build resistance to change or to distract from your project to some other project. And someone can be an influencer with no skills/knowledge relevant to your change project – they may use their authority, charisma, or credibility in other areas to convince others to resist the change.

Beyond change processes, changes have the best chance of succeeding where the change team also addresses elements such as culture, behavior, and sentiment. Influencers can have an outsized impact on these elements within an organization. And as Sheila Goldgrab noted in an article for Forbes, years of internal network research have shown that “people in informal networks have a bigger impact enabling or blocking change than those with formal authority.”

This is why it’s so important to know who the influencers are.

Learning how to influence the influencers

Some key actions you can take include identifying influencers, understanding their value drivers, engaging them in the process, and providing appropriate supports and training to them. Plus, a little recognition can go a long way.

1. Identifying influencers

There are multiple ways you can look to identify influencers. Some are outside of formal change management processes.

Ask a friend. As part of your research, ask people who they consider to be well-connected influencers who are trusted by peers and managers. You can do this through interviews, surveys, or observations. Seek out people who have a good overview of the dynamics of your organization (usually not the leader) and ask them about it.

Stakeholder analysis. Since this is a basic step for a change management project, just make sure you are also identifying influencers as one of your stakeholder groups. Consider rating them on a few criteria such as level of interest, potential impact, and level of influence.

Network mapping. Often this type of analysis is done by a consultant because it’s helpful for the mapping to be done by someone outside of the network. It involves documenting and analyzing connections/relationships among employees to see who influences whom and where the “nodes” are (i.e., an influencer and their scope of influence). A common tool is a sociometric analysis. Getting a visual of the relationships (a sociogram) can be a very useful way to understand your organization’s informal structure vs. the reporting structure.

2. Understanding their value drivers

Identified influencers won’t automatically be on board for your change project, and they may in fact be against it. Getting a clear understanding of their value drivers – what motivates them and what their goals are – will help you to better address their concerns and/or provide the supports they need.

3. Engaging them in the process

You may be tempted to ignore influencers who are resistant to the change, but that’s often a mistake. Engaging them in the process early can make a big difference to outcomes. You can also broker connections between influencers who do not have overlapping networks of influence as a way of providing value back to them. Treat them as co-creators of the change process.

4. Providing appropriate supports and training

Influencers often attain their status by maintaining a reputation for domain-specific knowledge or for being the go-to person who knows where to get answers when no one else does. Within a change process, you want to make sure that you help them by providing information, key messages, and training at all stages of the process.

5. Recognition

Recognize the contributions of influencers, but think about their value drivers to determine what type of recognition that person might appreciate most. For example, one might like a public thank-you, while someone else might want to be added to a strategic leadership team for future changes or nominated for a leadership development program.

Making the most of influencers in your organization

Let’s say you get an influencer on board with your proposed change (and more importantly with your goals and desired outcomes). There’s a lot to learn from the social media influencer model for how you can really empower that influencer to lead the way.

Treat them like a first follower. A first follower effectively “opens the door” and gives credence to your message for others to follow. Like a social media influencer, they can mobilize their colleagues to engage with the change process and contribute to its success.
Support influencers to be not-so-secret change agents by encouraging them to:

  1. Lead with knowledge. Because influencers are perceived to be knowledgeable, make sure they have the info they need to uphold their reputation and share that knowledge with others.
  2. Be authentic. If influencers are genuine and passionate in their belief and advice, and they can share their experiences, that authenticity will be associated with your change project.
  3. Communicate regularly. A one-and-done engagement will not likely be perceived as genuine support, so get them to communicate regularly as you move through the different stages of your change process.
  4. Interact. A good influencer interacts with their communities of influence, and the interaction really powers up engagement. It’s also a good way to expose concerns or areas of resistance that will need to be addressed.
  5. Be themselves. It may seem like a good idea, but scripting influencers can backfire. People trust them and follow them for a reason, so let them script what they want to do and how they want to do it. You can still review and advise.

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About the Author

As VP, Corporate Knowledge at Volaris Group, Sherry works closely with all of our organizations to capture & share best practices through peer programs, special sessions, portals, and communities. She also oversees Volaris Group platforms, technologies, and strategies that support our collaborative culture.

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