Leveraging off informal leaders

Leveraging off informal leaders www.businessbinoculars.com.au

Business Binoculars - Team work & Leadership Development

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Who is the go-to person in your team? Have a think about that as you read on. Sometimes groups pick their own leaders, despite the organisation providing one, such as a supervisor.


What is an informal leader?

Informal leaders are a naturally occurring part of our workplace. They’re people who are chosen by the group to lead, often in a tacit way. Informal leaders are not created by management, instead, they exist in a unique position outside the realm of org charts and receive no elevated pay or conditions for the role they play in teams.

Informal leaders operate within the social networks of the organisation and often do not seek formal leadership roles. They are viewed by others as trusted, credible, technical experts who are usually efficient in their work and inadvertently exert influence over the group. They also act as a communication conduit and translator between supervisors and the general workforce.

Informal leaders can influence the team in a variety of ways, including; team beliefs, behaviours and expectations to name just a few.

The formal definition for informal leaders is; One who comes from the team, is chosen by the team and one who exerts influence over other group members.

In many cases, they share a highly cohesive relationship with the formal leader and can act as a confidant. They serve as a trusted sounding board for general frustrations which can aid in stress reduction for formal leaders. However, if formal leaders are inadequately supported by managers over an extended period, they may increase their emotional reliance on the informal leader. A possible negative consequence of this could involve the blurring of professional boundaries and diminished authority when the formal leader needs to take charge.

Having said all that. The picture of the two-headed giant (General Fallon from Jack the Giant slayer movie), allows me to make a great cautionary statement.

If informal leaders aren’t identified early on and managed well, teams can in some cases, grow a second, very ugly head which can disrupt team operations and create distractions throughout the organisation. There should only be one head steering the team and that’s the organisations appointed team leader. Attempting to cut off a second head once it’s fully grown is a painful and distracting operation for any organisation.

The benefits they bring

Informal leaders can be hidden treasures when it comes to achieving outcomes, easing the load on supervisors and getting the job done by;

  • Mentoring junior staff.
  • Lifting team morale.
  • Re-directing the teams focus in new directions.
  • Keeping tasks on track by monitoring team performance.
  • Providing back up to team members.
  • Making minor decisions which allow the team to move past daily hassles when working through a task.
  • Free up time for supervisors (difficult to account for this time).
  • Stabilising teams during periods of vulnerability, such as times when team members enter or exit the group. 


Identifying an informal leader

Team members will naturally gravitate towards this person. Look out for employees who display self-directing behaviours and high self-efficacy. Not to be confused with self-efficiency, self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their own abilities to achieve a goal. Informal leaders may also have a strong internal locus of control, which is the belief they are in control of outcomes rather than external forces affecting outcomes. They will also work in a way that contributes constructively to the team’s success and one who appears to influence the overall team morale and behaviours.


Getting bang for buck

To get the most bang for buck, ensure you;

  • Identify and support your informal leaders early on.
  • Consider formalising their position as a junior leader.
  • Create a development plan which includes training and mentoring that will lead to a genuine outcome.
  • Honour any agreement you make.
  • Set firm boundaries, avoid ambiguous or miss-leading statements.
  • Provide regular support through informal or formal meetings.
  • Ensure they do not become overwhelmed or feel as though responsibilities are being shifted onto them that belong to others.
  • They will work best when they feel you value their contributions, care about their welfare and are working to support them.
  • Foster healthy and safe environments that allow for open discussion.
  • Keep an open line of communication with them, they should be able to access an appropriate mentor/supervisor when required.
  • Avoid giving them special treatment or developing a special relationship that other team members are excluded from.

Look after your informal leaders, they can reduce the load on supervisors when managed well. Avoid taking advantage of them.


The reluctant ones

I once worked with a guy named Michael, who was a great contributor to our team. Michael had many great qualities that led us to gravitate towards him at work. People naturally followed his lead and implicitly sought his approval as a matter of validation during work tasks due to his experience, knowledge and stable behaviour.

Michael had become the informal leader of our team. This was difficult for Michael because he had no interest in a leadership role and had not sought this role out. We had chosen

Michael, but he was reluctant to assume this role in the way the group had wanted him too. So how do we manage this situation to help Michael and keep the team stable?

Firstly, supervisors and managers need to have situational awareness relating to the social dynamics of the teams they manage. Once we establish this type of awareness, we can identify when events such as this may be occurring.

The supervisor needs to approach Michael privately and have a discussion to determine how he feels about the group dynamics that relate to him. Now we can determine what Michael’s needs are and look at a plan to address the situation.

In this case, Michael needs to be reassured that he has the supervisors support and should not feel pressured to take on any social or professional leadership roles at work. We should also let Michael know how he affects the group and even if he chooses to push back against this role, he will still have the ability to influence the group. So ask him to continue to gear his behaviours positively for the overall health of the team.

Michael also needs to know he can refer other team mates back to the supervisor without reprisal when team members need direction. It is important to remove any expectations that Michael, as an experienced worker will provide a quick solution for less experienced team mates, especially considering he’s not employed as a surrogate supervisor to act in the supervisor absence.

The supervisor now needs to understand that there may be no replacement for Michael, after all, Michael was chosen by the group, not the organisation. Replacing him is not something we can force or decide for the team. Remember, informal leaders are naturally occurring. Having said that, stay alert, a new informal leader may emerge as the group moves forward.


Nurturing informal leaders

Informal leaders should know they can always refer people back to the supervisor for decision making when unsure, they should not feel as though they have become a decision maker, so setting boundaries as I mentioned earlier is absolutely critical.

Let them know other team members see them as a safe, trusted, technically valid person.  Being seen in this light is something to be proud of and they should consider how this may be an opportunity to affect their workplace and others in a positive manner.

Stick to the agreed development plan, this will build trust and show you care and that you’re not selfish or using them to achieve your own professional glory at their expense. Deviating or failing to follow any agreed plans may create mistrust and damage your credibility.

Be careful not to performance punish them, use them as scape goats or expect them to act in the role of supervisor without the training, pay and conditions.

Provide regular constructive feedback, but for goodness sake, avoid love bombing the person in this process. Love bombing can occur for a variety of reasons. It sometimes occurs with managers who are inadequately prepared for their role. They may use love bombing as an attempt to gain worker support for their leadership, hoping people will follow them and comply with their directions.

Love bombing eventually leads to a situation where the leader loses control and finds it increasingly difficult to course correct, discipline or provide constructive criticism to workers to improve them professionally. It may also be used to avoid conflict. In any case, it leaves people with an inappropriately grand view of themselves and makes the team weaker in the long run. Don’t do it, you’ll regret it.

Informal leaders can have a great impact (positive/destructive) in any organisation. Getting on the front foot early can allow you to set a positive tone in the team.

Identifying and embracing these informal leaders can benefit the organisation if managed well. Remember, create a development plan, which includes boundaries, avoid special or privileged treatment. Keep an open line of communication and mentor them into your next junior leaders.

Business Binoculars is here to help you develop your teams and leaders, call us when you’re ready to get started, we look forward to helping you 🙂

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