Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, describes the three types of people needed to lead to positive social epidemics: connectors, mavens, and salesmen. According to Gladwell, connectors know lots of people, know diverse people, and get things done. Now academic literature suggests that this connector concept is multifaceted, and one’s predisposition to be a connector can be measured with reasonable accuracy and convenience. As a member of the finance team in your organization, you can leverage this research to help find connectors. The net results could include reduced costs for the organization as well as improved effectiveness of your team.
Through their research, Romana Autrey, Tim Bauer, Kevin Jackson, and Elena Klevsky developed a model for connectors, including several traits and skills. (See “Deploying ‘connectors’: A control to manage employee turnover intentions?” in the November 2019 issue of Accounting, Organizations and Society for details of their research.) They administered a survey online to 140 students at a large state university. Students who received scores in the top 10% of those respondents were classified as connectors. The other 90% were classified as nonconnectors. They formed groups of three to five students—some that purposefully included one connector and some that purposefully included no connectors—unbeknownst to the students. The students then met with their groups in breakout rooms on campus and completed a task in which they had to work together. When the task was complete, they individually completed a feedback survey about the group and their connection to it. Autrey, et al., measured group experience (see Figure 1) and individual turnover intentions.
From this research, they were able to describe three key connector components (see Figure 2). First, being personable: agreeableness, openness, and the other characteristics relate to friendliness and/or approachability. People like to talk to personable people. They’re easy to be around and welcoming, and they don’t create conflict or unwanted disruption in group settings. Being personable, however, isn’t enough to connect people. If the potential connector isn’t interested in connecting, then a friendly personality isn’t enough to make it happen.
This is where the second component comes in: desire to relate to others. An interest in connecting is essential to making the bond materialize. Finally, that person also needs to be able to use their skills to influence people around them. Hence, the third component is the ability to influence others’ relationships. This reciprocity is necessary. People that the connector reaches out to must want to reach back. If a group member has these three components, that member will be able to connect people within your organization.
With the twin trends of group work and diversity affecting organizations, these connectors are valuable for their ability to help colleagues have great group experiences and want to stay in the company. Connectors can also help organizations that are looking to enrich their decision making by including diverse voices. Because diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) is an increasing priority for organizations, finding a way to retain diverse talent can help with this priority.
CONNECTOR OR NO CONNECTOR?
Building on prior literature, Autrey, et al., developed a survey based on existing scales and research to measure whether people are connectors or not. The first section of the survey relates to how much the person generally possesses a positive or negative affect; for example, they indicate whether “on average” they feel enthusiastic or scared. This helps to assess if they look at the world more through a “glass half full” (positive affect) or “glass half empty” (negative affect) lens.
The second section relates to whether the person has an orientation that is more individualistic, relational, or collective. For example, asking questions about self-aspect such as their preferred way to respond to “when faced with an important personal decision,” while providing options such as “ask myself,” “talk with my partner or best friend,” or “talk to my family or relatives,” can measure whether the person is most comfortable on their own, relating to one person, or relating to a group of people, respectively.
The third section has to do with personable traits, asking whether the person sees themselves as sympathetic, dependable, emotionally stable, etc. The final section relates to “connectivity” and political skill/interest. For example, respondents indicate whether they agree with “I’m often the link between friends in different groups.”
An individual’s collective responses to these questions help determine whether that person makes an effort to connect and be connected. Identifying whether someone is a connector then involves weighting each response using predetermined multipliers to come up with a combined score across all questions.
So how do you know if you’re a connector or have connectors working for you? You or your employees can take the survey. It reports a connector score and offers an assessment on the likelihood that you’re a connector. A higher score means that employees will be more likely to be able to facilitate inclusion of group members. Specifically, based on the research, scores greater than 80.5 represent a connector with a probability greater than 90%. Individuals with scores lower than 80.5 might still be connectors, but that probability is considerably lower. (Readers are also encouraged to contact Autrey, et al., for help developing a more sophisticated score that identifies connectors relative to organizational peers. They also developed a simplified scoring method to help managers quickly and easily identify connectors.)
In their study, Autrey, et al., found that turnover intentions could be reduced, especially in diverse team members, by inserting connectors into the team. To explore this further requires a look at the prevalence of group work in accounting and finance, the connector survey used to identify connectors, the concept of group work attachment, and how you might apply the research findings to create a positive impact for your organization. Let’s begin with a look at what the role demands of management accountants.
DO ACCOUNTANTS DO TEAMWORK?
One stereotypical image of the accountant is the solo finance professional with the green eye shade. This individual works alone, toils for long hours, and doesn’t consult with colleagues. We all know that stereotype is false. The trend in both private and public accounting is an emphasis on communication skills and collaboration. See “The Importance of Group Work in Management Accounting” for more detail.
A review of some of the main roles in accounting and finance illustrates just how much group work is prevalent in the finance function these days. To begin, those serving on an organization’s board of directors need to collaborate with other directors to select the top management team and hold them accountable for acting in the best interests of the shareholders. Because directors may hold diverse viewpoints, they need to reach a consensus on what exactly is in the best interests of the shareholders. This requires collaboration.
Secondly, CFOs are members of the top management team, so they need to work together with the heads of the other functional areas to set the company on the path to fulfilling its mission and vision. They also lead their department (i.e., a team specializing in the accounting and finance function).
Third, controllers may serve as members of cross-functional teams created to solve organizational problems. In this role, collaborating with representatives of the other functional areas will be important for obtaining information, evaluating problems, cocreating feasible solutions, and implementing those solutions. They also lead a team of accountants who report directly to them.
Fourth, internal auditors, who report directly to the board of directors, are responsible for evaluating their organization’s internal controls and suggesting improvements, which is typically too complex a task for one person to do alone, so they need to collaborate with other internal auditors to get it done correctly and on a timely basis.
Fifth, external auditors perform audits as members of an audit team. They’re responsible for obtaining evidence that lets their audit firm opine on the fairness of their client’s financial statements and the effectiveness of their client’s internal controls over financial reporting. This is also too complex a task for one person to do alone, so they need to collaborate with their audit team members to perform each audit. This scratches the surface of just how much teamwork happens in accounting and finance, and how vital connectors in teams might be to your organization.
GROUP WORK ATTACHMENT
These days, after a prolonged period of a tight labor market and on the heels of the Great Resignation, organizations need to do everything possible to reduce voluntary turnover (see Figure 3). And research has found that employees who are more connected to their work groups are less likely to leave (see Susan E. Jackson, Joan F. Brett, Valerie I. Sessa, Dawn M. Cooper, Johan A. Julin, and Karl Peyronnin, “Some differences make a difference,” Journal of Applied Psychology, October 1991; and G. G. Dess and J. D. Shaw, “Voluntary turnover, social capital, and organizational performance,” Academy of Management Review, July 2001).
It’s difficult to find new employees. And when you factor in the cost of hiring and training new employees, the reduced or lost productivity while a position is unfilled or until recent hires get acclimated, the increased workload for remaining employees who take on the former employees’ responsibilities, and the risk of voluntary turnover becoming contagious as cherished employees leave, it truly is in the company’s best interest to keep the good employees that they have (see Matthew O’Connell and Mei-Chuan Kung, “The cost of employee turnover,” Industrial Management, January 2007). Therefore, employees need to feel connected to the groups that they’re working in. For some employees, especially those who feel that they have lots in common with their fellow workers, it’s fairly easy to feel connected.
But think about situations that you may have been in that you didn’t feel connected. What was it about those situations that drove that feeling? Was it that you were dissimilar to the rest of the group? Have you ever been the only woman in a group? The only person of color? The only person born abroad?
There could be a variety of attributes, some less obvious (e.g., age, religious identity, political affiliation, and marital status), that make employees and group members feel like outsiders. Employees who feel like outsiders don’t share their authentic selves and generally don’t want to remain in the groups. This leads them to look for other jobs and then leave the company. What can your company do to help employees feel like they belong?
RESULTS AND IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE
The research by Autrey, et al., found that connectors influence group experiences. There are three key findings. First, the groups with a connector reported lower turnover intentions and a better experience. Second, the individuals reporting better group experiences also had lower turnover intentions, and it was the better group experiences of groups with connectors that lowered turnover intentions. Finally, these results were strongest for people who were minorities on their particular team, e.g., the only woman in a team of men or the only U.S. native in a team of non-U.S. natives, etc.
Keeping a record of employees who are high on the connector scale can be very useful for multiple reasons. The ability to recognize connectors and their impact on employee group work can help managers understand how to retain workers. With organizations stressed and finding it difficult to retain employees, taking advantage of the research findings is even more critical.
The connector survey can also help you identify those people currently in your organization who can help others feel connected and reduce employees’ desire to find another job. Connectors can help your employees develop relationships that allow groups to have better experiences and, through those better experiences, also reduce employees’ desire to leave.
What’s also important about this research is the impact on DE&I. Organizations are enriched when all voices are heard and when employees can bring their authentic selves to work. It isn’t easy for this to happen when members of underrepresented groups feel like they aren’t part of the organization. Connectors can help foster a sense of belonging, even more so for these diverse employees. So retaining employees who can make a bigger impact is even more crucial. Get started today. Have your employees take the survey—take it yourself—and find out who among you is a connector, and then work with that person to help foster a sense of belonging.