Research: Informal Leadership Comes at a Cost

Encouraging up-and-coming talent to take on informal leadership of a team or project is a great way to support both employees and their entire teams, but new research suggests that these duties can also take a toll on informal leaders’ job satisfaction and energy levels. The authors conducted a series of studies with students and professionals in the U.S. and Taiwan, and identified a significant inverse correlation between informal leadership and both energy levels and satisfaction rates. They also found that support from formal leaders can mitigate these effects: When people’s formal leaders were unsupportive, informal leaders reported energy levels 20% lower than non-leaders, but with enough support, the difference actually completely disappeared. Based on these findings, the authors offer strategies to help both formal managers and informal leaders reap the benefits of informal leadership while minimizing its negative side effects.

As an informal leader on my team, I’m often responsible not just for meeting my own goals, but also for managing and making decisions on team tasks. Even though these tasks are not mine to complete, I have to put in extra work to help my peers deal with them — and that can be really exhausting.

One of the best ways managers can both support employees’ professional development and improve their entire team’s performance is by encouraging promising talent to take on informal leadership responsibilities. Stepping in and leading a team or project can give up-and-coming leaders valuable experience and prepare them for formal supervisory or management roles in the future, while also adding value to the entire organization.

However, while taking on informal leadership duties can help employees feel more valued and support their growth, our recent research suggests it can also significantly reduce their energy levels and job satisfaction, often making them reluctant to take on these additional roles despite the long-term benefits.

We conducted a series of studies with more than 500 students and working professionals in both the U.S. and Taiwan to explore how informal leadership impacted energy levels and work satisfaction, as well as the extent to which support from formal leaders mitigated those effects. Through both quantitative studies and qualitative interviews, we found that informal leadership often leads to reduced energy levels, which in turn reduces job satisfaction. As one participant explained,

Whenever we have special events, I’m expected to be the point person for my whole team, and I’m often responsible for quickly making drastic changes to the agenda. Having to accomplish my own tasks as well as coordinate all of these other activities leaves me feeling extremely tired and depleted.

In a survey of student teams, we found a significant inverse correlation between team members’ informal leadership status and their energy levels. Similarly, a follow-up study with groups of working professionals found that participants assigned to be informal leaders reported energy levels on average 11% lower than those who were assigned non-leader roles.

We also found that support from formal managers had a major impact on the extent to which informal leadership duties led to reduced energy levels. In our study, we randomly assigned participants to read about scenarios in which they received either high or low levels of support from their supervisor, and then asked them to describe how they might feel in those situations. Participants reviewed a series of emails in which their supervisor responded to questions either by providing detailed comments and advice (the high support condition), or by rejecting their requests for help, telling them to figure it out on their own or ask someone else (the low support condition). In the high support condition, we actually found no significant difference between informal leaders’ and non-leaders’ energy levels, while in the low support condition, informal leaders reported energy levels about 20% lower than their non-leader counterparts.

This was echoed in our interview data. For example, one participant described how a lack of support and acknowledgement from their boss made their informal leadership responsibilities particularly draining:

I tried to do my best as an informal leader in my group. But when my efforts weren’t acknowledged, I started to find these additional duties more and more exhausting. I noticed myself feeling particularly bad when my boss acted like my work wasn’t important to the business, and refused to help me when I wasn’t sure what to do.

Of course, micromanaging can also be highly detrimental, as some amount of autonomy is critical to help people grow. But both our results and prior research suggest that managers need to strike a balance, giving employees room to develop on their own while still providing support both in the form of explicit advice and by modeling effective leadership practices themselves.

How Managers Can Support Informal Leaders on Their Team

Specifically, there are a few ways managers and organizations can support their informal leaders to limit the negative impact of these additional responsibilities on energy levels and job satisfaction:

Be a leadership coach.

To set up informal leaders for success, formal leaders should coach informal leaders on how to communicate effectively with peers and clients, provide input and advice on key decisions, and potentially find ways to reduce the informal leader’s workload in other areas to give them more bandwidth to focus on their new leadership duties. As one interviewee noted,

Since my background is on the technical side, I know the general direction of my work as a new informal leader, but I also have many questions. I hope my boss will still be there to consult with me and help me learn more about how to manage others.

Another critical component of effective support is feedback. Informal leaders rely on honest, timely feedback from their formal managers in order to improve their leadership skills and avoid repeating mistakes. While managers may be hesitant about criticizing their employees — and indeed, they should be careful to ensure their feedback is framed constructively and respectfully — many of the employees we interviewed emphasized the importance of receiving helpful feedback from their managers:

Whenever I need to make tough decisions for my team, such as asking my peers to work overtime on the weekend, I always consult with my manager first and ask for his advice. And after I complete a task, I usually go back to him and ask how I can improve in the future. This kind of open feedback has been critical for my growth as a leader.

Communicate your expectations — and trust informal leaders to meet them.

One of the challenges facing informal leaders is that these employees are tasked with managing their colleagues without necessarily having real authority over them. As a result, they can often feel disconnected from both their peers and formal leaders, making informal leadership all the more draining. One interview subject described this tricky position, explaining:

Being an informal leader can be stressful because I feel like I’m stuck between my formal leaders and my peers. I often have to coordinate and communicate up and down the org chart, and I’m not always sure about the best way to do that.

To address this, formal leaders should clearly communicate their expectations to the entire team, defining exactly which areas the informal leader will be in charge of and which areas will remain under the formal leader’s purview. Importantly, effectively communicating these expectations will hinge on the manager demonstrating — both implicitly and explicitly — that they trust the informal leader to take on leadership responsibilities, and that they won’t step in to commandeer the informal leader’s projects or reverse their decisions. As one participant noted,

It often feels like my boss only delegates administrative or technical tasks to me. He openly acknowledges my role as an informal leader on our team, and yet he doesn’t seem to trust me enough to assign me any significant leadership tasks. I mean, I trust his judgement when it comes to making important decisions, so I wish he would trust me to take on more leadership duties. It’s tough to work with someone if you don’t have that kind of mutual understanding and trust.

Build a pipeline of informal leaders on your team.

By definition, informal leadership responsibilities tend to be temporary, as many of these employees will eventually either decide that leadership isn’t for them or move on to formal leadership positions. As such, it is critical for managers to nurture multiple informal leaders, rather than relying on only one or two people to take on all of the team’s informal leadership responsibilities indefinitely. Building an informal leadership pipeline not only reduces the burden on any one informal leader, but also ensures that the team will continue to be successful if informal leaders are promoted into other roles or decide to take a step back from their new responsibilities. Our interview subjects were very upfront about this, noting that while they were excited to take on informal leadership duties, they depended on their managers to think long-term about how to share the workload and plan for the future:

I’m hoping that my formal leaders start training more people to be informal leaders who can share my workload, instead of just relying on me to be responsible for everything … I mean, I like this team, but at some point I’m going to want to leave and move forward in my career. It’s just not sustainable if no one thinks about a succession plan.

How Informal Leaders Can Support Their Own Well-Being

Of course, support from formal leaders is important — but it isn’t everything. It’s also up to informal leaders themselves to stay on top of their own well-being and do what they can to ensure that their new responsibilities don’t negatively impact their energy levels or job satisfaction. Specifically, there are two key strategies we’ve found can help employees thrive when taking on new, informal leadership duties:

Stay aware of your energy levels.

It’s normal to be excited when your boss asks you to take on new responsibilities. And getting excited is a good thing — but as an informal leader, you should understand that these new duties can also be draining, and make sure to monitor your energy levels proactively to avoid burning out. Research has shown that a “rise and grind” mindset can harm both personal health and long-term career development, so it’s critical to stay on the lookout for early signs of burnout and exhaustion.

Proactively protect your energy.

Don’t wait until you’re feeling burned out to start protecting your energy and mental state. Practices such as going for short walks during the day, making sure you’re taking your lunch breaks, spending time with family and friends, and good nutrition and exercise can help to ensure your energy levels stay high even in the face of new responsibilities at work. In addition, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it, whether that’s from your manager, a colleague, a friend, or a mental health professional.

Informal leadership is both a critical stepping stone on many employees’ professional growth paths and a key ingredient of effective teams. But it can also come at a cost — and organizations that ignore the toll informal leadership can take on employees’ energy levels and job satisfaction do so at their own peril. To reap the benefits of informal leadership without burning people out, managers should remain engaged and actively supportive even when delegating certain responsibilities, and they should encourage employees to proactively monitor and protect their energy levels when taking on informal leadership roles.

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