Informal groups emerge within a workplace for many reasons including shared goals, interests, friendships or threats. Some groups can be productive and helpful to the formal organization within which they form. Other informal groups can become disruptive or distracting to group outsiders and the overall formal organization. Informal groups emerge when people find common ground despite their formal positions.
The Informal Organization
While an organization’s hierarchy can be drawn, job descriptions written, and ranks and titles bestowed upon people, the way individuals actually work together is not always as clear-cut. Bonds and alliances are created as people start respecting each other, becoming friends and working together to make workdays more enjoyable and productive. As an informal group expands to include more individuals in the workplace, and maybe exclude others, it makes a larger impact on the formal organization’s operations and can help or hinder workers’ behaviors and relations.
How Groups Form
Employees and managers alike have times when they seek connections with co-workers they can relate to. Informal groups form because co-workers have similar lifestyles. For example, a group might form when co-workers discover that they have kids in the same grades at school or that they share a passion for golf. Having such connections makes it possible for co-workers to get informal advice and assistance when they're struggling with a tough project or just having a tough day. Sometimes groups form with a purpose, such as when one worker has an idea or a grievance that co-workers rally around and support. For example, employees might band together to organize a fundraiser on behalf of an ill co-worker or to lobby management to upgrade a piece of machinery everyone uses.
Group Members’ Roles
Members of large informal groups gravitate toward four different roles, according to research published by Rob Cross and Laurence Pruzak in their 2002 “Harvard Business Review” article “The People Who Make Organizations Go -- or Stop.” The group might have a central person, or group of people, everyone connects with in some way. Some group members may take an ambassador-like role by bringing other people in from different departments. Some group members serve as “information brokers,” according to Cross and Pruzak, by keeping different individuals and sub-groups within the overall group informed of what other members are doing. Finally, some members might serve as specialists who help the group members with particular tasks as needed. (See Reference 2; paragraphs 3, 4 and 5.)
Leveraging Informal Groups
If you're a manager, the influence of informal groups in your workplace is important to understand. When members of an informal group are doing their jobs well and meeting the organization’s needs, discouraging the group might be counterproductive to workers’ motivation and morale. Conversely, if group members start to respect their group more than the formal organization, or begin slacking off on the job because of the group, the company can suffer. Discussing needs, expectations or potential problems with the most influential members of an informal group can keep them on your side and even help you leverage the group’s cooperation in achieving your organization’s goals.
A writer since 1995, Christian Fisher is an author specializing in personal empowerment and professional success. From 2000 to 2005, he wrote true stories of human triumph for "Woman's World" magazine. Since 2004, he has also helped launch businesses including a music licensing company and a music school.