Monday, 3 December 2012

Can informal leaders help employers to shape organizational culture?

Organizational culture is typically intended as the set of assumptions and distinctive shared values and beliefs developed over time within an organization. So rooted and pervasive these components are perceived to be within the organizational settings as to be intended and considered by employees as norms. In practice these values, beliefs and set of assumptions are mostly, but not exclusively, reflected in the behaviour exhibited in the workplace by each individual. In actual fact it is also by observing the way employees behave that individuals coming from the external environment can identify what type of actions, conduct and values are typical of any given work environment. So firmly associated is organizational culture with actions, rather than words or writings that corporate culture is also very often referred to as “the way we do things around here.”
In theory, it should be a direct and primary employer’s accountability identifying and deciding the values which should be fostered and endorsed within the business in that these values should also support the attainment of the organizational strategy and as such enable employers to more smoothly attain their planned objectives and aim. Employers usually use to devise and simultaneously implement different initiatives in order to make employees aware of the values and norms underpinning the business culture and of the way the organization is expected individuals to behave within the organizational settings.
Employees tend to attach a growing significance to practical actions and behaviour, rather than to, for instance, internal marketing initiatives and campaigns. Whatever the content of the message an employer may try to get across, what really counts in the end is, and will invariably be, what the employer by means of its managers does, by no means what this and its management say. The inconsistency eventually emerging between what it is said and what it is actually done within the business, will surely be tantamount by individuals to the employer lack of consistency and integrity; employers should hence constantly talk the talk and walk the walk.

Business founders and leaders invariably aim at developing, shaping, influencing and possibly controlling organizational culture; the seminal allies they can count on to this extent are traditionally represented by their managers. Managers are in fact the individuals who have the highest visibility within the organization, those who know everyone, or virtually everyone, within the business (albeit this might not invariably be the case in big corporations) and those who have consequently the chance to talk and stay in contact with the largest number of individuals in the organization. Unquestionably, managers are in a position to potentially take the role of those who can influence organizational culture the most; notwithstanding, this is not necessarily, invariably the case in practice.


Individuals are likely to genuinely follow a manager whether this shows to have good leadership abilities. With specific reference to this aspect, it is particularly important to discern between the apparent respect which may derive from the hierarchical role a manager holds and the genuine respect which a manager is able to command by virtue of his/her leadership abilities. Individuals clearly take into account what managers say, but more often than not this is due to the formal role and position they hold within an organization. It would clearly be different whether managers would be able to inspire and lead other people by virtue of their personal qualities, rather than by reason of their status. Leaders nonetheless, that is to say the individuals who have the features and characteristics enabling them to be appreciated and listened to by the other people and capable to exert confidence, trust and admiration on others, are not necessarily managers. Whether this should rather be the case, leaders would be actually called informal leaders, where the term “informal” derives from the circumstance that these individuals in actual fact do neither hold a management nor a responsibility position within the organization. More often than not, these gifted individuals are unaware of the influence they exert on other people and of the remarkable practical consequences their influence actually has. As a matter of fact they naturally attract followers even though they have never attended specific coaching or training programmes to gain and develop these features.


Informal leaders are individuals who have the innate ability to influence the other employees’ decisions, perceptions and behaviour. Notwithstanding, these do not necessarily benefit of an organization-wide visibility and might not be hence in the position to exert their influence over the entire staff. This may be due to a number of different factors such as the organization size or the type of role these formally cover.

Irrespective of the level of visibility these might or might not have within a business, and independently of their awareness or unawareness of the influence they are able to exert over other individuals, informal leaders are invariably seen and perceived by their peers as a model and an example to imitate. Even though these individuals are not doing it intentionally or deliberately, they are able to exert a certain influence on the way their followers behave and have thus the potential to help their employers to foster the desired behaviour and to consequently contribute to shape and develop the desired business culture. 

Albeit the influence exerted by these individuals on their peers is essentially stemming from their personal traits and innate features, the circumstance that these do neither fill any formal management position nor have any responsibility role might in many instances also contribute to let them gain more easily the other employees confidence and trust. Whether employers, in a bid to obtain their full support to shape corporate culture and influence staff behaviour, should confer informal leaders a formal responsibility, their followers or part of these might suddenly stop following. In some instances, this move might even be tantamount by some of their peers to a form of betray.


Informal leaders are usually appreciated and admired for the way they naturally and instinctively behave, perform and relate to others so that whether their behaviour coincide with that which the employer aims at fostering within the business, their effectual support may be obtained somewhat of easily and spontaneously. This clearly represents the ideal situation, but in practice such a desirable circumstance does not invariably occurs; employers need hence to do their utmost to gain these individuals’ support. Nonetheless, employers have to be particularly cautious when trying to attain this objective; every attempt to manipulate or suddenly award informal leaders an official management role or responsibility is in fact likely to fail at best and to trigger more detrimental consequences at worst.


Prudence has thus to be considered as a mandatory prerequisite to the attainment of the desired aim. As discussed earlier, informal leaders are first and foremost considered as leaders just because they have some special qualities, but also because they behave righteously and perform well. Considering that these individuals are habitually valuable employees, the circumstance these are, often involuntary, perceived as leaders should hence by no means risk jeopardizing their professional growth and development.


Spending time with these naturally talented people can enhance managers’ confidence to discuss more thoroughly and explicitly with them, in order to elicit their support, about the behaviour, values and beliefs the organization aims at fostering and promoting within the firm. To this extent, having recourse to metaphors and figurative language can definitely enable managers to be clearer and to approach the issue in a more informal way. These conversations can indeed help managers not only to know informal leaders opinion about corporate culture, but also that of their colleagues, which they are extremely likely to know, and to eventually redress their views about the way corporate culture is fostered and endorsed within the business.


Managers can also take advantage of the circumstance that informal leaders are held in high esteem to approach them when they are conversing with their peers in order to be involved in these group discussions and progressively gain a direct knowledge of the employees’ idea about the organization and its culture. This is indeed a powerful way for formal leaders to be known more in depth by staff in somewhat of an informal fashion and be appreciated and recognised as leaders themselves.


All too often employees have a wrong and negative image of their manager, and even more markedly of the business executives, just because they do not actually know these and perceive these as distant. Informal leaders can reveal to be precious employers’ and more specifically managers’ partners to this extent. What matters the most is ensuring that everything is done with transparency; creating two-way communications opportunities and averting which informal leaders may be perceived by their colleagues as playthings or as instruments in the employer hands is definitely crucial. Whether this should be the case, employers have to be ready to face the remarkable and at times even irreversible effects produced in the aftermath of the existence of such circumstances.


Whether managers should deem informal leaders to also have the capabilities to officially take managerial responsibilities and should hence decide to confer them a formal management role, provided that these are actually interested in it, this move would enable managers to stably benefit of the knowledge these individuals have of the other employees feelings and to secure the support of effective, staunch allies in the process of developing and shaping organizational culture.

The traits and personal attributes accounting for informal leaders to be considered and perceived as such by their colleagues are habitually represented by: honesty, integrity, sincerity, transparency and consistency. The way these individuals approach and perform their job, to wit: their level of performance, dedication, enthusiasm and energy, in many instances and to different degrees, typically also plays a considerable role. It is indeed the simultaneous existence and combination of these features and attitudes which explains why it is very likely that employers may receive an appreciable benefit from the contribution provided by these individuals in the process of developing and shaping organizational culture. 

Informal leaders can also reveal to be particularly important as employers’ partners when these have to introduce some changes within the business, even more so when change is concerned with corporate culture or “the way we do things around here.” A mundane but significant example of this is represented by the introduction of a new technology. Training informal leaders first, putting these in the position to feel sorely comfortable in the use of the new working system and ascertain the significance of its benefits, will certainly reveal extremely useful and important. Informal leaders by virtue of their natural personal attitudes will be invariably willing to help others and explain them the employer’s reasons for change, contributing thus to smooth the execution phase of the overall change process. Yet, involving these individuals in the change procedure from the very beginning enables employers to receive their genuine and full support from the outset and consequently helps organizations to more effectively contrast the restraining forces to cultural change eventually emerging during the unfolding of the process.


Unfortunately, informal leaders not invariably coincide with the “good guys”; at times it can also occur that are the “bad guys” those who inspire their peers, are perceived by these as a model and regrettably attract followers. This is indeed a very bad situation, likely to cause employers to experience particularly unpleasant hardships.

Albeit it clearly depends on the circumstances, the process by means of which managers should try to reverse the situation is in general similar to that suggested for these establishing good relationships with and receiving support from the “good guys.” Exacerbate the use of the disciplinary leverage is unlikely to enable employers to firmly and effectively overcome the problem. Individuals might feint to change in order to avoid penalties and avert to risk losing their job or part of their salary, but in practice resorting to coercive measures is unlikely to produce long-lasting results. In order to effectively solve the problem managers should therefore try to communicate and liaise with these individuals and find out what actually is behind their undesirable behaviour. More often than not resentment for past events, perception of unfairness and inequalities, particularly stressing working conditions, problems with their line managers and other similar circumstances can be at the basis of individual disappointment and rebellious behaviour. The causes of such a negative behaviour can be in some instances associated with the deterioration of organizational climate at large; employers are fostering a type of culture which for some reasons is completely differently perceived by the employees. These express hence their dissatisfaction and uncomfortableness exhibiting a type of behaviour that is the exact opposite of that fostered and expected by the employer. When those who misbehave, nonetheless, are informal leaders, who are assumed to invariably have a number of followers, the negative impact and consequences are likely to be even more catastrophic. 

Devoting these individuals attention and giving them the chance to be heard is clearly important. Yet, giving these individuals the opportunity to express themselves and openly relate their negative experiences as regards their and their peers life within the organizational premises, can reveal to be a priceless opportunity for establishing a positive link between employers and these employees and jointly investigating and identifying effective remedies and win-win solutions, ultimately leading to restore mutual trust and respect.
In these specific cases thinking to offer formal responsibility positions to this type of informal leaders could reveal to be particularly detrimental. It could be deemed as spreading a message based on everything but integrity, other employees could think that it takes to misbehave to gain visibility and get promotions. Such an organizational move could be tantamount in the extreme to organizational suicide.
After a while, whether these individuals should completely redress their behaviour and become genuinely and effectively supportive of the business cause, it would clearly be correct and appropriate to offer them, as to the other employees, growth and development prospects. These decisions should invariably be based on strong and objective grounds and preferably only after a considerable length of time has passed from the misbehaving informal leaders’ “redemption.”
All in all, the circumstance that de facto informal leaders influence organizational culture can be considered as an axiomatic fact. These can be ultimately associated with the good and evil of organizational culture; informal leaders can indeed make or break it. These individuals can either effectually support and help employers to develop and shape corporate culture, or play a negative role building and raising strong, insurmountable barriers to its development. In both cases, managers need to be extra vigilant and devote the required efforts to the identification and development of the right measures, and eventually countermeasures, to support employers in the achievement of their intended objectives and aim.
Constructive or disruptive that the informal leaders’ activity can reveal to be, these individuals have to be invariably approached and an open and transparent two-way communication process established with them in order to understand their position, reconcile the two eventually different points of view and try to receive their genuine support and help.
Longo, R., (2012), Can informal leaders help employers to shape organisational culture?; Milan: HR Professionals [online].