How far does your influence reach?  The February 2009 Harvard Business Review reported research by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler indicating that while all kinds of behavior and attitudes spread through social engagement, with each additional degree of separation a person’s influence progressively diminishes.  Those beyond three degrees of separation no longer exert influence. For example, a person is 14% likelier to be happy if his or her friends are happy, 10% likelier if the friends’ friends are happy, and 5% likelier if the friends of those friends’ friends are happy. By the fourth degree of separation, there is no longer any increase. 

What this means in the organizational setting is that firm-wide buy-in–necessary for effectuating change, sustaining a culture and steering a strategic path, among other things–requires that the message permeate the organization to a greater extent than we might have earlier thought necessary.  

In smaller firms, top management has to personally and effectively persuade at least one-fourth of the firm, on the assumption that the personal involvement of that quarter with those around them will effectively influence the others.  In the biggest firms, management must carefully calculate where the spheres of influence are and reach into those various groups to recruit ambassadors who will then bring the message to those within each circle, so as to eventually impact the whole firm. 

Particularly given the recent growth in firm size and increase in tiers, relying on the simple top-down approach means that the management committee may not reach far enough across or down to effectively enlist everyone.  The result can be alienated groups–young associates, non-equity partners, even senior partners–who haven’t gotten the word and make firm goals doubly hard, if not impossible, to reach.

This research, like others, emphasizes the importance of personal relationships in cementing the cohesion of a firm, regardless of its strategic direction.  While not all firms can afford a managing partner who devotes full-time to firm management and individual relationships, those firms who can’t should carefully ascertain that managers and their surrogates are engaging all components of  the firm.