Given an organizational chart, anyone can determine the formal leadership roles in a company. What many managers fail to realize is that there is another, complementary, leadership model that exists between the lines in an org chart: the informal structure.

What’s the difference between an organization’s formal and informal structure? The formal structure comes from the job titles, financial responsibilities, and lines of authority that make up the legal structure of the company. The informal structure stems from the way that individuals organize themselves in social groups. The informal structure may be partially dependent on the formal structure, but it also incorporates elements of personal influence, social skills, various forms of leadership, and the trading of favors.

Sometimes, IT leaders focus so much on the formal structure of the company that they lose out on informal leadership. This means that although they have the power to do what they want, they lack the influence and respect to make changes happen more productively on the informal level. In effect, they become agents of stress, changing people’s formal responsibilities without being able to alter what the rest of the organization expects from them.

As an IT leader, you need to understand how formal and informal relationships are created and how you can use this knowledge to your team’s advantage.

Kinds of leadership: Task vs. social
While working with a client one time, I saw an extreme example of the disconnect between formal and informal leadership. This manager isolated himself in his office, rarely speaking to his team or to the people that his team interacted with. The team worked hard but had little direction or focus. When the manager attempted to provide either, his efforts just created more stress and chaos. To understand what was going on in this group, I leaned on some information I’d learned back in Sociology 101:

Human groups generally have two kinds of leaders:

  • Task leaders: These people plan out the activities and make sure the group stays busy at its chosen task. They typically know a great deal about whatever the group is involved with.
  • Social leaders: These people make sure that everyone is okay with the group as a social entity. They pay attention to interpersonal relationships, defuse potentially dangerous confrontations, and keep the group on track. Most social leaders enjoy the people they are with more than the task they do.

Observing the team, I saw the following:

  • The team very much enjoyed one another’s company. They hung out together, chatted a great deal, and had weekly activities outside of work.
  • They were stalled in a variety of simple work-related projects.

The manager told me that no one on his team had leadership skills. Given this situation, however, I could clearly see he was wrong. Someone on the team provided significant social leadership, but he was not in a position to assign and direct tasks.

I called a formal meeting with the team members to discuss their progress of the week. Before the meeting, I spent an entire day talking with each member about his or her current tasks. We also discussed what that person saw for the future. At the meeting, I provided them with some simple task templates and a short-term (two-week) task-oriented vision. While we worked on that vision, I checked in with each team member every day to find out if anyone needed any further clarification about the work he or she needed to do.

By the end of the two-week period, the team not only accomplished the new vision but also tackled a huge stack of outstanding work. By the end of the month, they hit their quarterly goals and were well on the way to putting to bed projects that were over a year behind schedule.

Filling the leadership void
So what really happened? Why did the team suddenly kick into overdrive? Was it micromanagement? Did I drag them forward into a new era of exploitive employment kicking and screaming?

Not really. Like most people, the team members just wanted someone to talk to them. They needed to hear, logically, why achieving a given task goal helped them to achieve the overall goals of the project and therefore the company. Giving commands and expecting people to live up to their responsibilities may work formally, but it doesn’t account for how people think.

The manager’s abdication of his informal leadership roles basically paralyzed his team. Once they had a leader explaining the way, they went to work with zeal.

A powerful tool
Understanding this distinction between formal and informal roles gives us a powerful tool to help our teams. Rather than despairing when a team starts to drift, IT managers can ensure that the two basic roles are filled. If they’re not, managers can take steps to either fill the roles themselves or assign team members who can. This strategy also allows us to step back from the threat of one of our employees taking over “our” leadership position, showing us both why it happens and what that person is trying to achieve in a sociological sense.