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HS Leadership Principle #4: Informal Leadership

This leadership principle is part of the Organizational Health series: 15 principles that relate to the overall health of your organization. Other Human Systems Leadership Principles are contained in the Change Management, Community Embedding, Mutual Empowerment, and Ethics categories.

Organizational Health

Just as exercise, healthy eating, meditation, and other healthy lifestyle choices support the long-term health of the human body, the Human Systems Organizational Health Leadership Principles support the long-term health of your organization. By following these principles, you invest in the sustainability and longevity of your organization, as well as minimize burnout and turnover.

HS Leadership Principle #3: The organization encourages emergent (informal) leadership, the ability of employees to manage projects and make important decisions regardless of their level of formal authority.

Leadership as change

When I was doing research that allowed me to develop the organizational, relational, and individual Human Systems Leadership Principles, I studied hundreds of leadership definitions contributed by leadership researchers and theorists since the late 1800s. If you were to throw all of these definitions into one pot and boil them down, you would get something like:

Leadership is an action taken by an individual or group for the purpose of change.

If you want to get really simple, you could say that if you are leading, you are trying to change something: an attitude or belief, a group dynamic, or something in the physical environment. In this distilled definition of leadership, there is no reference to position or role, physical attributes, age, or social status. In the distilled version, anybody can lead.

“Circle of Influence” leadership

One of the best things you could do to reduce turnover and moral injury (a.k.a. burnout), as well as make your organization more sustainable, is to encourage informal leadership in all of your employees within their “circle of influence.” That is, the person or group who is closest to, or alternatively most affected by, the problem should get to develop the solution.

For example, let’s say you are an administrator at a hospital and you’ve been getting reports that the nurses in the ER are becoming frustrated with the time lag between when they put in the request for patient medication and when the doctor on shift approves the request. There have also been complaints from nurses and technicians about certain doctors who approve the request verbally but consistently neglect to make a note in the system. Your instinct may be to talk to the head of ER department and instruct them to talk to their ER staff about the importance of regularly checking system notes and keeping everything up to date.

What if, instead, you allowed the people closest to this issue – the nurses and doctors – to figure out why the system is not working and develop solutions? If you think about it, if the head of the ER department is not actually addressing the core issue when she instructs her staff to be better about reading and entering notes in a timely manner. The core issue is that patients are not receiving medication in a timely manner. The best people to figure out how to fix that problem is the people who are responsible for getting the medication to the patient.

There are lots of challenges to this approach. First, it is time-consuming, and nurses and doctors generally have very little time. Second, putting the responsibility of solving a systems issue on employees who are not used to having that responsibility will probably meet with a good deal of resistance, at least the first few times you do it. Your employees will probably feel intimidated and very nervous about making the “wrong” decision. They may also feel resentful about being given a responsibility that they feel belongs higher up in the chain. Third, your employees’ solution will have to fit with other systems, guidelines, regulations, etc., of which they will most likely have little knowledge.

There are ways to address all of these challenges, and the payoff for this kind of investment is huge and multifaceted. First, sending your employees the message that you believe they are intelligent and skilled enough to develop a systems solution will build organizational commitment. Second, coaching your employees through the first few projects of this kind will result in a significant and very beneficial transfer of knowledge between their department and administration. Third, the process of developing a solution that works for everybody will increase your employees’ systems thinking capability, which will be valuable for solving future systems issues. Fourth, you will facilitate relationship-building between your employees, as well as between your employees and other relevant groups or departments. Finally, the best solution always comes from the person or group who has the most knowledge about the problem, and is the most invested in its successful resolution.

Aside from the time and money investment, probably the most difficult aspect of this kind of approach is the transfer of control. As an administrator, you might be afraid of letting a group of employees for whose work you are ultimately responsible take control of a system. Your employees will be afraid of disappointing you or making a mistake that could affect patients or customers, and will also need to know where they will get the time needed for this kind of project. That is, everybody could end up experiencing some embarrassment, which is a scary emotion that often prevents us from taking calculated risks.

When possible, I strongly advocate for this informal leadership approach if you are playing the long game – if you want to retain employees, prevent moral injury, improve organizational outcomes, and work towards a thriving organization.

Learn More

Contact Human Systems for a brief complimentary consultation on solving a systems issue, or schedule a workshop to learn about the Circles of Influence Method (CIM), a unique and accessible tool to teach systems thinking through mapping organizational relationships and pinpointing systems challenges.

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