The Power of Identifying and Engaging Your Hidden Influencers

By Beth Wilkins, Ph.D. and Natalia Smith

Early in my career, an insightful mentor taught me that formal leaders are in charge but not in control. After ten acquisitive years at Oracle, I realized how accurate this axiom was. My role as an organizational effectiveness consultant gave me a front row seat to senior leaders’ attempts to transform their organizations. Though I worked with some brilliant leaders, most often their sophisticated strategies were not operationalized in the way they envisioned. I became fascinated with the relational dynamics in organizations that can either accelerate or impede transformation.

In my role as the Director of Talent Development at Oracle, I had the privilege of working with Dr. Rob Cross from the University of Virginia. His thought leadership on the power of social networks, as well as my own experiences navigating the complexity of global leadership, taught me that many times informal, or hidden, influencers have a significant impact on the direction, alignment, and commitment of organizations.


Hidden influencers are those with personal power, but not necessarily positional power. Other employees are drawn to them due to their expertise, influence, and role modeling. These informal influencers are crucial for engagement, information flow, decision-making, best practice transfer, institutional knowledge, mentoring, and retention. In short, they are key to transforming and bolstering the morale and productivity of an organization, and yet executives often fail to identify who these people are. In fact, in McKinsey’s efforts to identify informal influencers as part of their change management initiatives, they have found that executives are most often incorrect in their initial assumptions. As a result, social network analysis experts commonly use web-based surveys1 to help leaders get a more accurate understanding of their informal networks, and the hidden influencers within them.

As a strategic, employee engagement firm, DecisionWise is constantly looking for ways to increase the morale and productivity, or engagement, of organizations. Through our research, three main categories of informal influencers have emerged: role models, experts, and change agents.

  • Role models are the people employees admire and naturally go to when they need advice on how to do their work or move forward in their careers. These mentors greatly affect others’ morale of others and provide guidance on how employees should behave if they want to succeed in the organization.
  • Experts are those that employees and customers seek out when they need information. Frequently, newer employees apprentice under these more knowledgeable colleagues, and leaders and peers go directly to them when they need quick answers or assistance on key initiatives. The challenge, however, is that experts often become crutches for those who go to them in lieu of learning the needed information themselves.
  • Change Agents are individuals who have the charisma, political savvy, or optimism to get things done in the organization. Often this group is the most visibly influential; however, there are some, due to their ability to effectively build trust, who quietly exert their influence by working through more prominent peers or formal leaders.

Since informal influencers seem to be magnets for meaningful work and are valued by their colleagues, our early hypothesis was that they would be some of the most engaged employees in the organization. Surprisingly, we discovered those at the center of informal networks are often overloaded and disengaged, because they are so frequently tapped to answer questions, solve important problems, or teach others. These activities can increase engagement if employees are not weighed down with high-priority projects; however, many of these key contributors seem to be struggling to balance all the work their competence has earned them. In a recent study of more than 300 companies, employees identified as the most reliable collaborators and sources of information had the lowest engagement and career satisfaction scores. If these connectors of information and people become disgruntled enough that they leave the organization, they take valuable intellectual property with them and leave gaping holes in both information and process flows.

Shot of two businesspeople talking together while sitting a table in an office

An example from a global biotech company highlights how significant disruptions in informal networks can be. The leader of their product development function identified the key influencers in his information network in an effort to redistribute workload and decrease the time it took to get products to market. Unfortunately, no one acted on this data and figured out how to lighten the load of these key collaborators. As a result, almost a third of the informal influencers left the organization due to burnout. This meant that two-thirds of the existing relationship webs were affected. Those who remained struggled to establish new relationships and fill the information gaps. Instead of shortening the time to market, weeks were added to project timelines because key institutional knowledge that was once there was now no longer readily available. Additionally, the trust needed to run projects smoothly had to be rebuilt amongst those who remained.

With our expertise in survey design, statistical analysis, and employee engagement consulting, DecisionWise is uniquely positioned to help organizations identify and engage their hidden influencers. Our network analysis surveys, coupled with sophisticated data visualizations, enable our clients to find targeted solutions that increase the engagement and the retention of their key contributors. On an individual level, our executive coaches can help experts, change agents, and role models increase their own engagement and amplify their influence on the engagement of the many employees who rely on them. On an organizational level, our consultants can help senior leaders redistribute responsibilities in order to lighten the load on key influencers, remove network bottlenecks, and engage a greater number of employees in more meaningful work.

Please contact us if you are interested in tapping into the hidden potential of your organization.

  1. Cross, R., & Prusak, L. (2002). The people who make organizations go – Or stop. Harvard Business Review, 80(6), 104-112.

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