The Boundaries of Informal Leadership

Strengthened organisational hierarchies can be a path out of the mire of evermore specialised roles and excessively collaborative work environments. However, even with an effective and open hierarchy in place, informal leadership is critical to organisational efficiency and success.
Informal leadership is most effective when conducted with a small number of closed ties (involving three people) and a mix of friendship- and task-orientated activities. When the ties are open (involving only two people) or become too numerous, informal leadership begins to break down and can hinder or even endanger an organisation's operational efficiency.

Over the length and breadth of my career, I have come across many people who believe that leadership is a role rather than an activity. In that the leaders of an organisation are the people designated as forming the ‘Senior Leadership Team’ or ‘Executive Leadership Team’ and hold titles such as CEO, CFO, Head of, Manager etc. Even if I had not made an active study of leadership, I would have known this role based definition to be utter rubbish because even children can apprehend the essence of leadership. An essence that can be asserted as a person we feel compelled to follow not because they are in a position of authority, but because it makes sense to follow them.

Since taking on formal management roles another lightbulb has clicked on. That my management capacities — not to be confused with capabilities — are symbiotically linked to the leadership capabilities of my team. Meaning that informal leadership is a source of competitive advantage — when effectively managed — and should be developed accordingly.

In an organisational context, informal leadership can be said to exist when an employee does not have positional authority over the resources they are trying to influence yet are still able to influence or direct those resources.

Some organisations invest a little and some a lot in developing their managers’ leadership abilities. But the most interesting category of organisations are those that invest meaningfully. In that they not only invest in developing their managers but take the time to develop leadership capabilities in a wider employee base than only people with positional authority.

However, engaging in staff development of this nature is much easier said than done, once we realise that fostering informal leadership involves leveraging concepts such as Simmelian Tie Theory (STT) and Discretionary Boundary Spanning (DBS), and culminates in the relationship between different types of informal leadership and the perceptions managers have of their employees’ leadership performance. Spoiler alert, some managers feel incredibly threatened by informal leadership.

Yet when done well, the journals of record and management magazines are right — informal leadership can be a source of competitive advantage. However, for it to be done right, an organisation cannot simply invest in some generic leadership training and wait for the magic to happen. Instead, a host of interconnected capabilities need to be in play, from being bold with efficiency aspirations, through minding the capability gap, to leading at scale, and leading psychological safety in teams — in addition to fostering leadership in capable employees.

Whether or not your organisation has come close to reaching this holy grail of capabilities, there are still a range of practical implications for managers in developing informal leadership in their organisation. In this article, I will cover the evolution of workgroups, why informal leadership matters, and the notion of Discretionary Boundary Spanning. Next week in part two, I will look at the ties or types of connections between people, the strength and by extension viability of those ties, and the implications for managers and employees.

The Evolution of Workgroups

Some authors view teams as distinct from workgroups. The difference being that individuals in a team occupy specific roles, while in a workgroup no specific designation of role is necessary. While of benefit in some circumstances, for the purposes of this piece the terms team and workgroup can be used interchangeably.

In 2017, two excellent surveys of the last century’s worth of organisational literature were conducted (Mathieu et al 2017; Parker et al 2017). Both surveys repay reading in full, but the gist of their research is that many non-management roles in organisations have undergone extensive changes. Specifically, increased employee responsibility.

Beginning in the 1980s, we began to see ever growing collaboration requirements. Out were the days of purely menial roles existing in a command and control environment; in were collaboration, job-sharing, and a growing plethora of meetings at ever lower levels of the organisational structure. Two key drivers of this change over the last forty years have been:

  1. Growing automation: enabling individuals to engage in work with minimal oversight.
  2. Increasing offshoring: of more repetitive, lower skilled, or non-collaborative roles, leaving only the more collaborative jobs for onshore staff. A process that ballooned in the twenty years to 2016 with a 50% increase in collaborative activities.

Because specialisation tends to beget specialisation, managers and teams in collaboration rich environments have invariably doubled down on these macro-economic trends. In the context of informal leadership, this presents itself with non-managers not only taking on leadership responsibilities in their own team, but also in cross-team work. A remit that was once the sole preserve of formal leaders due to it being a fundamental management capability, as well as highly complex and very costly when employees get it wrong.

The ballooning of collaborative processes within workgroups has seen managers overloaded and consequently struggling to cope with the ever growing volume of inter-team collaboration. Examples of this are the move by many organisations to ever flatter organisational structures. While often seen as more egalitarian or equitable to have fewer hierarchies, the reality is an increase in the spans of control — that is more people with whom a manager must directly interact to complete a unit of work. The result of this process is diminishing managerial performance due to working with too many individuals and across too many domains. Not to mention a dwindling of the thinking time necessary for effective decision making.

Strengthened organisational hierarchies can be a path out of this mire of evermore specialised roles and excessively collaborative work environments — so long as organisations ensure there is an open model to knowledge access. However, even with an effective and open hierarchy in place, informal leadership in inter-team contexts — technically termed Discretionary Boundary Spanning (DBS) — is key to organisational efficiency and success.

Discretionary Boundary Spanning (DBS)

First coined by Michael Tushman in his 1977 article Special Boundary Roles in the Innovation Process, boundary spanning is a term used in organisational psychology to describe individuals who occupy the role of linking sources of information. These spanning activities are externally orientated and distinct from internal or within-team processes used for the dissemination of information.

Formal boundary spanning is generally associated with formal leaders. Team leaders, managers, executives, and other people with formal authority within an organisation. Formal boundary spanning activities also involve resource acquisition and allocation, mapping the organisational environment, influencing other teams, and the coordination of inter-team tasks and activities. It is because of the resource allocation nature of this work that boundary spanning is often formal because organisations are, rightly, very particular about who can exercise this sort of control.

However, the proliferation of collaborative duties in the workplace means it is difficult, if not impossible, for people with positional authority to manage all the formal boundary spanning events necessary for efficient and effective collaboration. If nothing is done about this shortfall in spanning activities, much organisational value remains untapped and projects can falter and fail. To account for this, either an organisation needs to hire an increasing number of managers, which is impractical and inefficient, or tap into the latent leadership capabilities of non-management employees. Establishing what has been termed ‘collective bridges’.

Because informal leadership is rarely covered by an employee’s job description, there is a tremendous grey area when it comes to what they should and should not do. This can increase the friction in teams as less confident or more authoritarian managers see discretionary boundary spanning activities as a threat to their positional authority. For highly competent leaders, strategic plans can all too easily be wrecked by informal leaders taking too much initiative. Leading to wasted resources, ‘do overs’ of work, and increased confusion among stakeholders regarding what is being done, when it will be delivered, and with whom they should be communicating any changes in requirements.

By too much initiative, I am referring to situations in which there is an open knowledge approach by the manager and their strategic goal is effectively communicated. But the informal leader does not fully comprehend the goal, or their heuristics are causing poor decision making. Resulting in divergence from the strategy or the manager constantly having to step in to correct the project's course.

Another key challenge in establishing positive DBS actives in organisations is that unless effectively managed, employees can experience resource depletion. That is, they become so involved in helping behaviours that they have insufficient time to complete their formal duties or achieve their manager’s established objectives.

Speaking with managers who increasingly observe DBS in their teams, and reviewing the academic literature, there is considerable divergence of opinion as to how the process of informal leadership should be tackled. Some see employees who engage in DBS as people to be rewarded and even promoted — a process that encourages others in the team to participate in DBS. While others consider DBS to be a hinderance to effective teams and something to be discouraged, even punished. To counteract these negative trends, it is important to structure informal leadership in much the same way that organisations structure formal leadership.

What’s Next?

In next week’s article, I will explore Simmelian Tie Theory (STT), which can be used to monitor the structure and quality of the ties between the informal leader and those they are seeking to influence. I will also speak to some of the tools that can be used to map informal ties so that managers can more effectively govern, employees can avoid burnout, and teams deliver greater value to the organisation.

Good night, and good luck.

Further Reading

Ancona, DG, and Caldwell, DF (1988) Beyond Task and Maintenance: Defining External Functions in Groups. Group & Organization Management, 13(4), 468–494.

Cross, R, Rebele, R, and Grant, A (2016) Collaborative Overload. Harvard Business Review, 1.

Hirst, G, and Mann, L (2004) A model of R&D leadership and team communication: The relationship with project performance. R & D Management, 34(2), 147–160.

Hogg, MA, Van Knippenberg, D, and Rast, DE (2012) Intergroup leadership in organizations: Leading across group and organizational boundaries. The Academy of Management Review, 37(2), 232–255.

Koopman, J, Lanaj, K, and Scott, BA (2016) Integrating The Bright And Dark Sides Of Ocb: A Daily Investigation Of The Benefits And Costs Of Helping Others. Academy of Management Journal, 59(2), 414–435.

Kozlowski, SWJ, and Ilgen, DR (2006) Enhancing the Effectiveness of Work Groups and Teams. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 7(3), 77–124.

Marrone, JA, Tesluk, PE, and Carson, JB (2007) A Multilevel Investigation of Antecedents and Consequences of Team Member Boundary-Spanning Behavior. Academy of Management Journal, 50(6), 1423–1439.

Mathieu, JE, Hollenbeck, JR, van Knippenberg, D, and Ilgen, DR (2017) A Century of Work Teams in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(3), 452–467.

Parker, SK, Morgeson, FP, and Johns, G (2017) One Hundred Years of Work Design Research: Looking Back and Looking Forward. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(3), 403–420.

Tushman, ML (1977) Special Boundary Roles in the Innovation Process. Administrative Science Quarterly, 22(4), 587–605.

Zhao, ZJ, and Anand, J (2013) Beyond boundary spanners: The “collective bridge” as an efficient interunit structure for transferring collective knowledge: The Collective Bridge as an Interunit Knowledge Transfer Structure. Strategic Management Journal, 34(13), 1513–1530.

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