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Employee Engagement: Unleash Your Influencers


By Victoria Lewis-Stephens

Social media gives us 24-hour access to the commentary, views and attitudes of virtually anyone who wants to share their innermost thoughts. The power of this type of communication can influence buying decisions, brand success or failure, and even incite civil unrest.

The big question is: In today’s connected world, how can big businesses identify their internal influencers to drive change and inspire their people?

At Intinctif Partners, our experience tells us it’s no longer enough to cascade information top-down, or generate conversations through line managers. Even co-creation isn’t sufficient. These measures are critical, but they’re the basics.

To really drive change from the bottom up you need to find, empower and unleash your influencers. Identifying them is a must if you are to capitalize on their power and not fall victim to it.

So who are your influencers, and how do you find them?

They are the ‘go-to people,' individuals who your people respect and know they will get an honest and real answer from. It’s someone that through their knowledge, ideas and track record has earned the respect of their colleagues.

Influencers can be an organization’s most vocal employees, and while they can be a business’s biggest asset, they can also be a liability.

If influencers understand where the business is going and favor the change, they can be the catalyst for making change happen. But equally they can be very disruptive and cynical. If your influencers are not engaged with the business strategy, or simply not happy with the way things are being done, they can literally grind a business to a standstill.

There is no obvious method for identifying the influencers within an organization. But the smart companies crowd source -- looking for the curious connectors, who have strong opinions but are able to listen and learn.

Cutting across hierarchy, role and geographical location, your influencers will typically be found at all levels of the business, with varying lengths of service -- a truly representative group from across your business.

Most businesses have at some point identified a network of champions, often to launch a project, spearhead communications or drive participation in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. While this is a key population that can help engage people in key initiatives, there is a major difference between an influencer and a champion. A champion is usually a self-nominated or management-nominated individual. They are often seen as advocates of the business and can therefore lose some of the impartiality that an influencer will have.

The wisdom of crowds isn’t a new phenomenon, but to find the most influential employees, businesses need to kick against their normal hierarchical structures and tap into the knowledge of the masses.  A view from the boardroom just isn’t good enough and is unlikely to generate the true influencers in your business.

Finding the gossips, the ‘go-to people’ and those whose opinions your people value requires a different approach – you can’t just ask for employee reps, you need to think smarter.

‘Snowball sampling’ is a technique used by social scientists to study street gangs, drug users and sex workers, groups typically reluctant to participate in surveys. This process asks participants to nominate other people to participate in a short survey – the more influential the individuals the more their name appears instantly, identifying the connectors.

In corporates you can use the same principle by asking your people to answer a couple of simple questions: Whom do they trust? And whom would they go to if they had a question?  As names are put forward you will find that certain names appear frequently, identifying the influencers in your business -- the real connectors with their fingers on the pulse.

Identifying your influencers is only the start. How you use your influencers is the real key to success. While co-creation, co-design and collaboration are the buzzwords of the business world, they are also the key to success when unlocking the power of your influencer population.

Engaging your influencers in shaping how you deliver your strategy will help you drive engagement across your organization. As advocates of the business, influencers can be the strongest communications channel a company has, and to really make them advocates you need to involve them.

You need your influencers to feel proud to be part of this new community, valued and listened to.

Brainwashing and coercion just won’t work!

Image credit: Flickr/Phil Whitehouse

Victoria is a Managing Partner in the Engagement practice, and heads up the global consulting team at Instinctif Partners, driving and delivering change communications and engagement strategies for large complex corporates. Victoria has delivered a number of projects whilst at Instinctif Partners for Lloyds Banking Group, Unilever, Direct Line Group, Starwood Hotels, Thomson Reuters and Royal Bank of Scotland. Victoria has over 12 years of experience in Strategic Communications and Engagement and has worked in a range of in house roles and agency roles. Her in house experience has involved heading up global corporate communications functions at HSBC, Centrica and State Street.

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