Networking for change

By Raina Brands

People resist change. In the perpetually shifting world of business, that’s a problem. McKinsey estimates that 70% of change programmes fail to achieve their goals, in a large part due to employee resistance.

All organisational change ultimately means that people have to start behaving differently. Because our behaviour is profoundly affected by our relationships, the success of change efforts, therefore, depends on the social bonds of the instigators of change: the change agents. In other words, more friends, more success.

Group think, group do

It’s not that simple, of course, but all around us, every day, we’re surrounded by examples of people adhering to group behaviour. It’s so woven into every aspect of our lives that we don’t even notice it.

Picture a Mexican wave for a moment. Every single Mexican wave, no matter the size, moves at the same speed. Sit in a café for a while and notice the groups coming in and sitting down. Watch groups of three or four edge towards the café’s tables, glancing expectantly at each other’s faces to arrive at a silent consensus on the best place to sit. It’s the same scene in cafes all over the world. Individuals disappear as they are subsumed into a group.

We’re so affected by those around us that a happy or unhappy person three degrees of separation away makes us feel the same way. So if your friend’s friend’s friend has just got a promotion, you get a sprinkling of their joy. Happy people tend to cluster together: each additional happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9%.

The bad news, though, is that negative emotions are also contagious. Sadness, depression, fatigue, decreased energy and stress are all catching, but instead of steering clear of negativity, it binds us together: a common dislike of someone or something is a powerful social connector.

Networking for change

As a change agent, your success depends on harnessing that power. Birds of a feather flock together: people form relationships with similar people. This creates a conundrum for anyone making large-scale change, because it’s actually the disconnections in your social network are the key to the door between now and the future you envisage for your organisation.

When you hear the word ‘network’, you might sigh inwardly at the prospect of introducing yourself to people for the sole purpose of making contacts to further a goal. But this is an outdated view of a social network, and networking in this way doesn’t usually produce results.

Change-maker networks work differently. We can explore how through three main dimensions: how many relationships you have, how the people you know are all connected and how much the people in your network support your change.

How many relationships do you have?

In a network, the people with the most ties are at the centre. They’re high status opinion leaders, and set informal standards of behaviour. Their level of formal authority, however, is irrelevant. If a CEO wants to make changes to the way his organisation’s factories operate, one popular and influential factory worker can easily scupper the whole plan. Being at the centre of a network is critical to success, whatever your rank at work.

How are the people you know connected?

If you want to make big changes, you need to bridge disconnected groups. That means making friendship connections with people in different groups, who aren’t connected to each other. When you’re in a network like this – known as a ‘bridging network’ – you get access to novel information instead of hearing the same things over and over again, as you would in a ‘cohesive’ network. Here – where people are all connected to one another – people generally trust and support each other. But it’s an echo chamber, and better suited to use as a base to make small-scale change, not organisational transformation.

Transformation is divergent. It disrupts existing norms and practices, and to execute it you need to shift long-held values and practices that are taken for granted. From a bridging network, you can control the change message, tailoring it to different stakeholder groups. Because the individuals within it are unconnected, you avoid the gossip and group think of a cohesive network, and people can’t form a coalition against you. People in cohesive networks often report that instead of the support they expected when trying to instigate change, stakeholders joined forces against their efforts.

How do the people in your network support your change?

In most organisations, when it comes to organisational change, everyone falls on a spectrum of support, from resisters at one end through bystanders in the middle to helpers at the other end. The scale of your change is important here, as each category of person works differently depending on whether a change is divergent or incremental. With divergent, organisational change, resisters aren’t susceptible to social pressure and you probably won’t change their mind. They might, however, change yours, so keep them at arm’s length.

Bystanders sit on the fence. They have no strong opinion on your changes, but they are susceptible to social pressure so being personally close to them can tip the scales in your favour. Unlike resistors, it’s worth investing your time in bystanders. As for helpers, being close to them won’t make them more engaged. They already are engaged, so your time and effort is best spent on the bystanders. Take them out to lunch, ask them what they think and strengthen your relationship by connecting over common interests.

The importance of authenticity

A recent study showed that when we establish contacts for purely instrumental reasons we feel bad about ourselves. In this particular study, people said they felt ‘dirty’, or ‘gross.’ But if establishing and strengthening relationships furthers our goals, we should get better at it. This takes a change in focus and mindset.

From a learning perspective, making a genuine connection is key. That means approaching the relationship with a sense of curiosity and excitement, rather than feeling dread at the prospect of having to schmooze to achieve an aim. Remember that simply having a conversation can forge a powerful connection. Connect on genuine interests so there’s a real reason and opportunity to help each other. If the beginning part is authentic, the ensuing relationship will be too.

Instead of thinking about what you can take away from the potential relationship, consider what you can give. If you don’t think you have much, ask them for ways you can be helpful. There’s lots of evidence that what goes around does indeed come around.

Informal networks are a vital, yet often ignored, element of successful organisational change. Some leaders succeed in making spectacular transformations to their organisations, while others flounder. On the face of it they go about enacting change the same way but, underneath, something is different.

While formal authority is important – many studies have shown us how hard it is for people at the bottom of a hierarchy to drive change – it is far from sufficient. Formal authority can trick us into thinking we have power, when in reality it’s our informal influence that works the hardest.

The article was published in London Business School Review.