Employee conversations are a hallmark of the work experience.
Humans are social creatures by nature. It’s a simple fact they’ll take the opportunities to socialize where they can–whether it’s a watercooler chat, a lunch break, or a postscript to a team meeting. Sure, these conversations are fun ways to make the day go by a little faster but, critically, they also help teams grow closer together and drive greater performance.
Conversations through the grapevine are spearheaded by a small but mighty few with influence at work. According to recent research, 3% of employees drive 90% of the conversations held in an organization. In internal communications parlance, these employees are known as informal influencers.
Influencers are people who have built up trust and respect over their tenure with the company. Employees naturally seek these influencers out for advice and reliable information about goings-on in the company. Sometimes they will hold positions of power as a team leader or line manager, but they are more likely to be team members.
Bringing employees with influence at work into the fold of your internal communications strategy can start a relationship with many, many benefits.
Influencers can be your point persons for championing culture change initiatives to get more buy-in at the grassroots level. When you can’t find the right words to communicate organizational changes, influencers can translate big picture shifts in relatable terms that employees understand. And, critically, influencers can be your eyes and ears on the ground, taking the temperature of the company through the conversations they have with other employees.
Strategies for identifying employees with influence at work
Of course, in order to receive any of the aforementioned benefits, you have to first know who your influencers are. The good news is every company, no matter if it has 50 employees or 5,000, has influencers. Some will be easier to find than others. Here are three ways to identify the employee influencers you can leverage for your communications strategies:
1. Pick out the usual suspects first–but don’t stop there
Chances are you’re already aware of some of your employee influencers. There can be overlap between engaged employees and the people driving conversations in your company. Make a short list of the ones you know, and don’t be afraid to consult the help of other department heads and team leaders either. The employees that come to mind will be those that are naturally social with their colleagues, understand the business’ marketplace and organizational structure, actively engage in company communications, and make an effort to connect with employees outside of work.
However, if this is the only methodology you follow, most of your influencers will remain unknown. In a case study, McKinsey & Company compared a list of influencers hand-selected by managers of a retailer with its own research on employees who held influence at work. The firm found the managers missed three of their top five influencers in their stores. The firm produced similar findings in organizations spanning different industries and geographies.
2. Allow your influencers to self-identify
Want to avoid inadvertently making your employees feeling burdened by bestowing the mantle of “influencer” onto them? Then make them come to you. Put out a call across multiple communications channels letting employees know you’re looking for go-getters willing to play a part in your communications initiative.
You may get more responses if you make it clear up front that the role is important and will get them “in-the-know” before their peers, but does not require a significant increase in professional responsibilities. As you communicate with your respondents, ask them what they’re passionate about in the company. If you use them as influencers, identifying their interests ahead of time will aid buy-in and make for more engaging conversations with other employees.
3. Use snowball sampling to find the rest
This methodology pulls a little from the first two examples. Like number one, you’ll be selecting influencers yourself. Like number two, you’ll be relying on employee input to do it. Both McKinsey & Company and the IC Kollectif list a process called “snowball sampling” to help communicators find influencers they can’t identify–and who might not immediately identify themselves.
In a brief, anonymous survey, ask your employees questions about the people in the company they trust and respect. McKinsey & Company suggests examples like “Who do you go to for information when you have trouble at work?” or “Whose advice do you trust and respect?”
As you’re sifting through the results, look for any employee names that get repeated throughout the document. The more times an employee is anonymously named as trustworthy, the more their reliability snowballs, and the more likely it is that they have influence at work.
Incorporating influencers into your comms strategy
Once you’ve identified your influencers, the next step is to establish an open communication protocol with frequent feedback loops. Any time you’re planning a big strategic communication initiative, make sure to bring them in the loop before formal communication to your wider audience occurs. Give them time in advance to understand what is happening and why so they can bring that clarity to their conversations with other employees.
Because employee conversations are often unmonitored and unfiltered, leaders can have some trepidation over influencer-driven strategies. The fear is that condoning this more open form of conversation–particularly when it’s about work matters–will form a rumor mill. Misinformation, malicious or not, will be tacitly allowed to spread under this approach.
In our interview with Karin Bonev, the head of Dix & Eaton’s internal communications practice, she observed that bad information spreads when leaders make assumptions over what employees do and do not know.
“They’re not sensing that employees really don’t know what’s happening,” Bonev said. “The employees are left to guess what’s going on. When they have to guess, they come up with their own ideas and assumptions about what’s happening and why.”
For this reason, influencers are actually uniquely poised to combat the harm caused by the rumor mill–but only if you make an effort to keep them in-the-know. Employee influencers will only be as reliable as the information you provide them. If they don’t know what’s accurate and what’s not, they won’t be able to identify and stamp out bad information when it appears.
To that end, it is important to note employee influencers are not the same as company brand ambassadors. They are not puppets to be used to relay a precise, curated corporate message. When you reach out to them, your goal should be to enrich the conversations they’re already having with employees.
Remember, these employees have informal influence. Much of their credibility stems from the fact that they are not leaders nor professional communicators. Taking steps to control these conversations more directly can undermine that credibility.
Finally, a large organization will have influencers throughout many departments and all across your organizational chart. Make sure your final list of influencers reflects this diversity. Be thorough as you identify them and don’t be afraid to cut any loose who have less influence at work than they initially appeared.
Although at first it may seem unconventional to bring influencers into your internal communications strategy, the conversations they have with employees will happen with or without your input. Wouldn’t you rather they be informed conversations?