Can Your Upward Influencer Inspire Employee Improvement?


In the past few years, businesses have turned to influencers to help them reach a wider target audience. New research shows that another kind of influencer is at work inside many organizations. “Upward influencers” can play a big role in team performance and employee improvement. Who knew?

Your Upward Influencer and Employee Improvement

In their research, Professor Wei Cai at the Columbia Business School, Professor Jee-​Eun Shin at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management and Yaxuan Chen, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School, set out to study team dynamics in the modern organization.

We’ve all heard that having work friends contributes to an employee’s happiness and is therefore linked to productivity. Team members who don’t have friends at work could be looking around for their next gig. To prevent that outcome, managers should actively help employees build bonds with co-workers.

Managers must also learn how to optimize employee improvement when they are dealing with specific types of team members. Chai and fellow researchers focused on the team dynamics when an “upward influencer” joins. “ ‘Upward influencers’ are employees who are characterized by their tendencies to flatter the boss or intentionally misrepresent their contributions to impress superiors,” the researchers say.

These are the co-​workers many of us love to hate. They remind us of the kid in middle school who convinced the teacher they did all the work in a group project. Your employees may even claim that the upward influencer is a toxic presence on the team. But is that true?

Managing Your Upward Influencer

You’ll have the answer to that question if you’ve asked your employees to take a psychometric assessment. The results reveal what motivates each person. Some team members want more power and will behave in a way to get more access to you. Other team members concern themselves with the need to be completely original in their approach to projects. The need to follow a structured process can motivate team members as well. With so many competing motivators, it’s little wonder that teamwork can fall apart.

Chai and her fellow researchers explain that the presence of an upward influencer can optimize a team and contribute to employee improvement. To achieve the best outcome, add an upward influencer “with more collaboratively-​driven “team players” in order to maximize team productivity and success.” In these cases, the upward influencer, usually a highly vocal person, will keep a project on course and inform you regularly about work progress. The outcome, in the influencer’s eyes, will be more visibility and better positioning for an eventual promotion. Meanwhile, the rest of the team won’t mind the influencer’s bossiness.

Power Imbalance

Not every team situation can be perfectly balanced. The researchers studied the performance evaluation details on hundreds of employees and project teams and found situations where influencers negatively impacted the job performance of co-​workers. Having too many of these people on one team, over 52%, can spell disaster. Instead of being able to informally lead a team, the multiple influencers spend too much time competing “with one another for influence or power over productive, collaborative work.” They won’t be getting the work done; they’ll be arguing or actively trying to convince the other team members to take their side in any dispute. Before long, you’ll be hearing complaints and possibly dealing with resignations.

If you have more than one upward influencer currently working in a small team, think about shifting their work assignments. And going forward, take time to review the motivators that drive employees before you build a project team. You’ll avoid some of the usual hassles that come with teamwork, and you’ll contribute to employee improvement. 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.

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Kathy Crosett
Kathy is the Vice President of Research for SalesFuel. She holds a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Vermont and oversees a staff of researchers, writers and content providers for SalesFuel. Previously, she was co-​owner of several small businesses in the health care services sector.