In literature, film and television the hero might be credited with the victory, but often their decisions are coloured by an influencer in the background. In business, being an influential leader is not confined to those with a seat in the boardroom. Leaders outside senior management are in a prime position to influence change, innovation and decision-making – if they form the right informal relationships.
Within formal, structured hierarchies, each player must know their role and stick to it. Think teams or project groups – sticking to the structure is vital in these scenarios.
However, not all decisions are made within meetings and inside structured groups. Managers can also have their ideas heard and considered by building informal relationships.
Based on a study, casual coalitions may come about through chats at coffee shops, the office hallways or even while exercising together. These informal conversations can then help managers build a friendly relationship with senior leaders and other colleagues. That, in turn, allows managers to – in the best case, inform key decisions and at worst, provide senior leaders with an idea of how the organisation thinks and feels.
The aim is to develop more candid conversations and open up new lines of communication between key decision-makers and the rest of the business, not creating a channel for lobbying personal interests.
Informal relationships do more than just afford managers the ear of senior leaders. These coalitions can influence other key activities:
Informal relationships influence innovation
Research on innovation describes it as a social process since it is not limited to the conjuring up of ideas but also involves acceptance and implementation. This means that the innovator and the individual responsible for delivering it must agree.
Whether the innovative idea is implemented may therefore rely on the strength of the informal relationship of the parties involved. The better each other know and trust each other, the higher the likelihood of a successful outcome.
Informal relationships influence change
One of the most difficult situations to manage is change. People are wired to resist it yet it’s a recurring feature in the modern workplace. However, a study found that having a strong informal network can affect successful change management.
It concluded that those with strong informal networks became clear change agents regardless of their position in the organisation. The study also found that people who built their informal networks acted as a bridge between socially disconnected colleagues resulting in improved buy-in when change is rolled out.
Make more time for quick chats and start building healthy casual relationships with your leaders and colleagues. You never know how your influence can impact the rest of the business.
Sources (these articles are available to IML ANZ members via Leadership Direct):
- Davies, P. N. and Koza, M. P. (2001) ‘Eating soup with a fork: how informal social networks influence innovation in high-technology firms’, Strategic Change, 10(2), pp. 95–102. doi: 10.1002/jsc.532.
- Battilana, J. and Casciaro, T. (2013) ‘The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents’, Harvard Business Review, 91(7/8), pp. 62–68.