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Four dimensions of internal influence: ambassadors, influencers, advocates and followers

One of the enduring memories of my undergraduate education at the University of Wisconsin is a comment made by an otherwise forgotten Statistics professor: “There are two kinds of people in this world – those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don’t.”

When it comes to organizations and their social dynamics, I tend to think there are four main kinds of people, each of which has distinct roles and needs to be addressed in distinct, yet integrated ways:

  • Ambassadors: formal representatives of the organization or specific initiatives.
  • Influencers: employees/members of the community informally sought for advice, knowledge or support
  • Advocates: individuals who voluntarily share opinions or facilitate initiatives or courses of action
  • Followers: those who have to be asked to take part in initiatives, activities or courses of action

Ambassadors

In recent years, organizations have become more and more aware of the role of social dynamics in driving the success of initiatives and overall performance. For the most part, they have focused, with few exceptions, on intensifying the ambassadorial dimension in the form of line manager training and incentives, and in organizing and orchestrating “ambassador” and “champions” programs where employees below manager level are formally designated as initiative representatives or behavioral role models.

Rarely, however, has the ambassadorial role been integrated with an explicit appreciation of the role of informal influence in driving the success of initiatives and behavioral change, likewise the role of influencers in shaping and circulating knowledge and opinion.

In some cases, the selection of ambassadors is even intended to usurp the influencer role – to the point where an organization would call its representatives “influencers” without any evidence that their opinion carried any organizational weight.

Implicit in the focus on ambassadorship is a focus on control. Executing a formal organizational role, as a manager or a champion, requires the individual to stick to official channels, messages and interpretations in promoting the agenda.

Influencers

Recognizing the limitations of hierarchy and control in driving change and performance, some organizations have invested in research to identify “influencers,” the group which research has identified as “the three percent of employees who drive 90% of the conversations” in a given organization. Through methods like organizational network analysis (ONA) and snowball sampling, it becomes possible to identify the credible individuals who are sought out by their colleagues for knowledge, advice and support.

According to Innovisor, the Copenhagen-based market leader in ONA for large organizations, there is a massive disconnect between those whom managers see as influential and those who employees actually seek out. “When as part of our research, we ask managers to identify whom they see as influencers, there is never much overlap between the manager view and the employee reality.”

It is rare that organizations actively find ways to integrate a real understanding of organizational influence when they adopt an ambassadorial approach to driving messages and initiatives. Much depends on finding appropriate ways for ambassadors and influencers to interact with each other – depending on influencer attitudes towards an initiative or the extent to which they are willing to be exposed publicly.

Advocates

So far, a third group, advocates, has been given little attention as drivers of organizational change and performance.  Ambassadors are selected by the organization and influencers by their peers and colleagues, whereas advocates are self-selected. Some choose to engage out of a commitment to organizational well-being, and others out of sense of opportunity, while those who advocate contrarian positions may do so out of a sense of grievance.

Even though their credibility and levels of authority may be lower than those of key influencers and ambassadors, advocates are nonetheless a critical and often underrated piece of the organizational puzzle, particularly if they are passionate, committed or acting independently. If they can be recruited to participate in the most appropriate ways, the effort involved in identifying them and channeling their activities can be highly beneficial – integrating their energy and enthusiasm and enabling them to be focused in positive, constructive, and efficient ways.

Followers

In most organizations, the percentage of ambassadors, influencers and advocates is dwarfed by a mass of employees who are none of the above – followers.

Followers are a huge percentage of most workforces. But mass mobilization of followers, especially relying solely on ambassadors or on direct internal communication, is often ineffective and generally inefficient.

In part, this has been because the prevailing approach to employee engagement treats all employees as equal, failing to distinguish and legitimize the normal role of a follower – which, simply put, is to amicably accept ABC and to execute XYZ.  Good followership is valuable in ways that are entirely compatible with good ambassadorship, influence sharing and advocacy. But the ways in which internal communication and employee engagement are generally managed and incentivized often leave followers inundated with irrelevant information and bewildered by calls for greater commitment and attention to matters outside of their immediate work scope.

The first step towards success

To bring success back into focus, the first step is to recognize that every organization is comprised of ambassadors, influencers, advocates and followers in varying degrees. Accepting that reality, the next step involves questioning the authoritarianism of ambassador-only interventions and the laziness of one-size-fits-all approaches to communication and engagement. Then, replacing these with an approach which respects the natural roles of employees and harnesses their interest, energy and leadership.  Doing so will maximize the value of organizational influence by integrating its different forms, and create a pathway toward real, systemic and sustainable organizational engagement.

4 Dimensions ICK

Courtesy of IC Kollectif

FREE BOOK OFFER: For deeper insight into the social dynamics of organizations and communities, download, From Lincoln to LinkedIn.  Invoking ancient principles of political communication articulated by Abraham Lincoln in 1840, I look at how identifying, connecting and mobilizing informal leaders can drive social and business communication and results. For a free download, click here.

1 thought on “Four dimensions of internal influence: ambassadors, influencers, advocates and followers”

  1. Hi Mike. Good piece, thanks for sharing, very useful.

    It’s interesting and helpful to see social dynamics broken down this way. I agree that advocates are an “underrated piece of the organizational puzzle.” They often have less authority but that shouldn’t mean organisations should dismiss working with them as their passion and independence make them very powerful.

    These individuals can also be supported with new tech now, so companies can scale employee advocacy quickly (our employee advocacy platform Qubist is one of these). The energy, enthusiasm and authenticity of advocates as a group can create a big impact on employer branding and talent acquisition. Moving away from a cookie-cutter approach is really important to harness every organisation’s greatest asset.

    Mark Henshall, Head of Content, Qubist

    Like

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