Senior insurance executive Rob Borden thought he had all the bases covered in his plan to make sweeping changes to his company’s health insurance policies and procedures. New legislation meant it was important to make the changes. He had carefully briefed all managers about the changes and had launched the program with a catchy slogan. But it became obvious a large number of employees were resisting change – the program was heading towards a mediocre result. Rob couldn’t work out why there wasn’t more support for the changes. Snowball sampling helped to solve the problem.
What Rob and many other executives don’t realize is that formal lines of communication and authority have limited impact – they don’t reach and gain the support of unofficial influencers or opinion leaders in an organization because many of those people are below the radar. A lot of staff who don’t have any formal authority, and therefore tend to be unnoticed by senior managers, actually sway the attitudes of their peers. Fellow workers come to them for their opinions and advice behind the scenes in every organization.
These opinion leaders have a big impact on workplace culture, on employee engagement, on employee attitudes to change, and many other issues. A surprising amount of informal communication flows through these people. Formal organizational charts don’t reveal how much of the real work depends on their support.
If these opinion leaders are unnoticed, how can they be identified? Formal processes won’t help. Organizational charts won’t help – because these people usually don’t hold formal leadership roles. Network mapping usually won’t help – because these influencers are more about quality rather than quantity of interactions.
An effective way to identify the hidden influencers is ‘snowball sampling,’ which is based on purposive sampling. Purposive sampling, used in qualitative research, involves selecting participants based on specific criteria or purpose that aligns with your research objectives. Snowball sampling involves finding and recruiting participants through referrals from existing or initial participants. This type of sampling from a group helps you to access hard-to-reach or hard-to-identify people, and to build trust and rapport with your participants.
Within organizations, this technique generally involves emailing recipients on a starting list to ask them to answer a few questions on a nominated subject, and to anonymously nominate others from their social network who can be asked to participate in the same survey. Then the others in turn can be asked to nominate further potential participants. This multiplier effect is called snowball sampling.
Emailed questionnaires ask simple questions such as “Whose opinion do you seek when you are not sure about changes to rules and procedures within the company?” and “Whose advice do you rely on when you need to sort out problems at work?” Employees can be asked to name 3-5 others who then are surveyed in their turn.
Usually it takes only 3-4 rounds for the process to reliably identify opinion leaders because the names of those individuals keep showing up. This ‘quick and dirty’ form of surveying is very effective for identifying key people across and down an organizational structure.
The task of influencing
Once opinion leaders are identified and contacted, either by email or letter, it is important to explain:
- they have been approached because their opinions are valued
- they are being invited to participate on a voluntary basis
- what the goals of the program are
- how the employer would like them to help.
In making the participation optional, a sense of trust is created and these employees can be provided with information about the need for change.
Even better – if these people are included in the early stages of planning such initiatives, their input will be invaluable in developing the related activities. They can contribute their views along with the formal leaders of the organization. Changes initiated in this way are likely to be much more successful than merely working through the formal organizational structures.
Such informal opinion leaders can even be encouraged to meet periodically in groups, either face-to-face or via Skype or video conferences, to support each other and to have their views canvassed on an ongoing basis.
By engaging the informal opinion leaders as respected partners in the planning stage of major projects, the employer protects the participants’ standing with their peers – they are not just seen to be puppets of management.
This technique enables management to implement much more effective change measures and other projects or programs.
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