Networks and Change Initiatives

Harvard Business Review recently published a study by the University of Toronto on how leaders make use of their formal and informal networks to create change within organizations. This study provides great insights for anyone who wants to see change take place.

You can’t do it without your network

Within every organization, there are both formal and informal networks and both are important. However, their study found that a person’s informal network was more crucial to success when it comes to implementing change. Among the middle and senior managers studied, high rank did not improve the odds that their change initiatives would be embraced. What mattered was the influence of his/her informal network.

The kind of network you have matters

“Cohesive” networks are ones where people within the network are also connected to each other. “Bridging” networks are ones in which people are connected to you, but not really to each other. The study found that leaders with “cohesive” networks were more successful at implementing minor changes, but those with “bridging” networks were more successful at implementing divergent measures that represented dramatic changes in direction.

Reaching Out to Resisters is a Double-Edged Sword

The study identified people as either: endorsers, fence-sitters, or resisters. Endorsers were for change whether or not they had a close personal tie to the leader. The study found that building a closer relationship with “fence-sitters” always made a positive difference. However, when it came to “resisters”, it became more complicated. If the change was relatively small—incremental—then having a close relationship with a “resister” tended to help.  However, when it came to sweeping changes, the opposite was true. The “resisters” saw sweeping changes as a significant threat and were, true to their name, resistant. On top of that, having a relationship with “resisters” also tended to cause the leader to be less open to introducing those kinds of changes because the leader is not immune to peer pressure, either.


  1. You can’t just build deeper and deeper relationships with people you already like and hope that those relationships will be enough to create change. It won’t work. Expand your network.
  2. Building relationships with people on the fringe will give you access to more resources and perspectives. If you don’t give the people on the fringe a seat at your table, you will miss out on as much as they do.
  3. If your need to be liked by others is too strong, you may find that the internal resisters keep your ship of dramatic change from ever leaving the harbor. Their “openness” to incremental changes will usually be used as leverage against you to justify their resistance to bigger changes.

Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Director of Leadership Development, Strategic Government Resources

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