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The clever cut - corporate downsizing

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Identifying and utilising the hidden influencers in your organisation can turn a downsizing project into a leadership development exercise.

There are few more turbulent and emotive scenarios in corporate life than when reducing headcount to control costs. Although the majority of organisations recognise the importance of hanging on to their high potential talent, few understand the impact that many less visible employees have on the smooth running of the business. Research by organisational network consultants Informal Networks shows that around 75% of the most influential change agents in every organisation are not managers, while just 5% of the total employee population are positive influencers who have the trust and ears of their colleagues. According to Forbes, 40% of managers are actually introverts as opposed to change agents who can, on average, influence around 20 colleagues or external contacts each - they genuinely make the difference between renaissance and revolt when it comes to a change such as downsizing.

These ‘hidden influencers’ often hold valuable legacy corporate information or anchor important social networks that can be vital in maintaining business as usual once the dust settles. When redundancies are being made, it is vital to keep these influencers on side, and by being transparent and actively involving them in the process they will more readily accept the change. This positivity and support will trickle down through the organisation resulting in far less resistance and in many cases, a significant improvement in morale. Moreover, they provide an honest feedback loop, and by giving them responsibility and visibility during the process it’s easy to identify future leaders.

For SMEs, working out who the influencers are can be as simple as asking a sample of staff questions such as who do they go to for technical information, who do they trust with HR issues, who is the best communicator. This creates a secondary list of employees, who you can then ask the same questions to until you build up a more detailed picture of key figures across the organisation. The exercise should ideally be carried out by HR Business Partners with the support of line managers. For companies with more than 2000 employees, online questionnaires can be sent out to create a baseline group that can then be whittled down through clarification workshops. There are several Organisational Network Analysis (ONA) software packages such as OrgMapper and Synapp that can assist in mapping out your organisational spheres of influence.

Your core influencers will tend to be change-positive people that respond exceptionally well to responsibility, so get them to deliver communications and involve them in troubleshooting. As many will not be at managerial level, it’s important to mentor them in preparation for a high visibility role by exposing them to senior management.

Once the exercise is underway there will be a small number of people in your group who aren’t quite as influential as you were led to believe, or aren’t demonstrating the responsible attitude required. However, it’s essential that they remain included in the project otherwise they will rapidly turn to dissenters. Task them with something less involved or remove them from the front line, but do not let them feel they are being treated any differently.

There will be also occasions when members of your change group will have sensitive information before even their managers, and this will require a degree of tact and sensitivity. Managers that haven’t been identified as influential may have bruised egos, so explain that they have an equally important man-management role in the process to avoid disengagement.

Harnessing the power of your hidden influencers works equally well for a number of change management scenarios. If you focus on identifying, tracking and engaging this group, you can help drive sustainable organisational change whatever your situation.

Wade Macdonald’s ‘Future of HR’ series aims to explore some of the real challenges and opportunities facing the world of HR as working practices evolve. Stay tuned for further insight.


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