Disclaimer: this article, like many of my articles are highly opinionated. They are not based on any laboratory experiment or anything except what I call common sense. Should you feel these contradict with your thoughts, you are free to comment and share your opinion as I wish for people to share their ideas on this matter through this venue.
Sometimes it can get a bit irritating. During meetings one person will act as the spokesperson of the group and talk about how bad others in the group feel about the current setup. Outside the meeting room, this person is highly opinionated, criticizing management decisions and seemingly stoking discontent among the workers.
Often they are seen by their superiors and managers (the formal leaders) as trouble makers who are up to no good. They sometimes wonder why other employees give them so much air time and why people believe them. They have the tendency to exaggerate, magnifying small problems to the point that people will think the problems are so great that the organization is falling apart, when in fact it is not. Managers often wonder how to deal with their seemingly disruptive behavior when they do not violate company policies. Some of them even perform a lot better than the overly obedient ones.
I’ve seen three ways of handling this kind of situation. The knee-jerk reaction one is to put them in their place, their rightful place, which is to make them shut-up and do their work. This scheme sometimes work but a lot of times don’t. Why? This question is best answered through the other two ways of dealing with them.
The second way of dealing with informal leaders is to take advantage of their strengths by letting them help in making the workplace more productive and conducive for work. Listening to them, investigating their concerns and digging deeper into their recommendations will give you a more complete picture of what is happening in the shop floor. By encouraging them to keep their ears on the ground, and share their assessments with you, you gain yourself an ally. One important thing to keep in mind is to make sure that you’re not taking anything that is less than factual. Always ask for substantiation, to keep their information real. Level expectations with them as well. Make them realize that their recommendations are appreciated and considered but not gonna be taken all the time. Some organizations have formal structure to harness the strengths of informal leaders. It is called Labor-Management Council or Labor Management Cooperation or LMC. I strongly recommend this strategy to all medium to large-sized organizations.
My third and final recommendation is to render them “useless”. Yup you got it right, render them useless. Informal leaders rise because accept it or not, some elements of leadership are missing in the workplace. There are times when the formal leaders (managers and supervisors) get so engrossed in getting the job done that they fail to take care of the other dimension as mentioned by Blake and Mouton( Managerial or Leadership Grid) which is the people aspect. When team members become afraid or do not have enough trust in the formal leader to listen to their concerns and suggestion, a surrogate leader surfaces and take that part of the role. It is easy to see when you are not being a complete leader; it is when somebody takes the cudgel for you by being an informal leader. Let me get back on track here by saying that I think informal leaders have no choice but to let go of their role when the manager take full leadership responsibility. This is done by opening all channels of communication, by recognizing their concerns, by giving them second chances when they make mistake, by helping them succeed rather than demanding it from them. Who needs an informal leader when the formal leaders work great?