Tap Into Informal Leaders to Influence


September 17, 2010

Back in July, I wrote ‘Leaders Don’t Always Think About Being Leaders‘ because I had just returned from the Conference Board’s  leadership experience at Gettysburg.  Coming off that experience, I believe I have been thinking about leadership in a different way.  Not only is it important to analyze who the named leaders are in our organizations, but it’s important to look at who the people are in the organization that influence employee perception.  This group includes all those informal leaders that people in the various departments look to when new initiatives roll out, when company news is announced, etc.

I recently attended a meeting where someone said that in order to turn or change an organization, you only need to find the square root of the total employees and focus on spreading the word through that number of people.  For example:

Organization size-  5,000 employees

Square root of 5,000-  70.71 employees

So, in order to make change stick in this example, you would need to find the 70 employees who are the informal leaders/ influencers and get them on board. Messaging should still come from more formal channels but by getting the influencers to spread the word with you, you can make a more significant impact on the organizational change.

Have you seen evidence of this in your experience?  Share it in the comments.  I’d love to hear about examples of how driving change through a small group of employees can work.  What were the challenges in identifying the informal leaders and influencers?


  • Interesting way to determine how many people in the organization can influence the whole. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of a number of people needed. But I have definitely used the informal channels.

  • The informal leaders are the ones with a crowd perpetually around them. Seriously!!!

    Now- are they leading a clicque? Or does everyone look up and respect this person for their work habits?

    Sometimes you have to identify the leaders of non-productive clicques so you can effect positive change within the organisation.

    Good stuff as always.

  • The informal leaders are always the ones with the most pull. They’ve earned their spot through networking, persuasion, performance, or charisma, rather than having it given to them by title.

    Leaders must set the strategy, but the network leaders will drive the tactical success of the program. There is a web of influence in every organization. If you know which threads lead to the center, you can greatly increase your chance of success.

    • @Jeff- I agree. I had never heard any mathematical way to calculate how many people you would actually need to get “on board” in order to make effective change. It would be interesting to try it on a smaller group and find out if it works.

      @Doug- That’s right, the informal influencers often have a crowd. They are also the people that everyone looks to when something is announced in order to gauge the reaction.

      @Dwane- I love how you worded that…”network leaders will drive the tactical success of the program”. We often focus so much on strategy that we forget how important tactics are in actually bringing change about. Thanks for the comment.

  • @Trish

    This type of influencer is exactly the type of person both sides look for in an organizing campaign, someone who can go forth and spread a message to others with competence and credibility.

    I have never seen it quantified with this square root concept before, but it seems intuitively spot on!

    Very interesting!

    What/who is the source of the formula?

  • Looking behind the scenes into the informal organization is very important for successful and sustainable Change Management initiatives. Informal Leaders are the hidden leaders that work behind the scenes to influence, negotiate, inspire their team members to get things done.

    I have done extensive formal research on informal leadership and you can find answers to your questions on my website at http://www.informalleadership.com. I am passionate about educating leaders, managers and organization about this hidden talent.

    Marcia Smart, Ph.D.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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