We all carry cards, have titles, responsibilities, comp systems and offices that define our formal roles at work. Also, each member in every work group has an informal role, both self-selected and assigned by the group. This selection process doesn’t happen according to any traditional method but develops over time, through the process of discovering the passions and intrinsic motivations of each group’s members.
Look into any group and find the person who always puts together the group dinners and suggests all the places for group activities. Ask who group members always go to when there is a difficult problem in front of them. Don’t expect it will conform to the chain of command but you can assume that the same name will come up regularly. Who has a special talent for understanding the feelings of every person in the group and therefore is the first to suggest a compromise that works? There will be a group member who understands the business model and the entire economic base of the business and just “knows” whether something will work or not. Don’t expect it’s always the trained accountant or the marketing director. Yet everyone runs ideas past that person first. There will likely be a group member who is the first to suggest a community outreach program and volunteer to be the committee head. Also, the culture leader will emerge rather than be appointed and function informally without title or portfolio.
I believe informal roles are equally important to the formal ones found in the organization chart. They provide the fuel that makes the team work together. Why? There is a level of appreciation and interdependence and respect that is more powerful than money or official recognition. The group wins together and loses together.
Informal roles are often carried up the ladder as people are promoted and may survive even when an individual moves from one company to another. I recall hiring a Director of Marketing who understood his informal role well. We had already established in our interview process that he had all the requisite experience and talked about the comp and benefits system. I was ready to make the offer, and he was prepared to accept. My last question was Mike, what is unique about you that will enhance our team. His answer was both immediate and correct. Mike said “sports.” He was right. Mike loved sports of all kinds. His first stop in the morning was the box scores. He was a walking sports talk show. Everybody brought sports questions to Mike. He designed and operated all the pools and set up the group trips to games. We had a new activity that enlivened the group and the office atmosphere. Mike’s “sports mister” role had nothing to do with his job but kept him in contact with everyone up and down the organization. Everyone benefited from his positive attitude and his acceptance and respect for all.
This past week I have been asking executives I coach to think about the informal roles in their companies and how those roles have gained respect and stature within the work groups and why. My thought is that we need to encourage this natural part of any culture though we have little or no control over it. Most people I talk to agree and set out to understand their informal organization better. They will be the winners because both power and passion reside in the informal structure that drives the group and can contribute to its success.