Workers rely on each other to get things done

Aug 01 2007 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Managers should stop kidding themselves it is their pearls of management wisdom that make a difference. Because most workers rely on one another, not their bosses, to solve problems in the workplace.

For those who have long suspected their business would continue to function whether or not their managers were strutting about the place, a study by U.S management consulting firm Katzenbach Partners will make happy reading.

Its research of more than 500 workers has concluded that it is informal networks and relationships that drive businesses forward rather than formal management structures.

It is within these that work really gets done and companies gain competitive advantage.

Just as importantly, organisations that give workers the confidence to solve problems and encourage them to contribute will often do better.

"The lesson from this research is that the informal organisation – the way work gets done outside formal organisational charts and processes – is real, and that employees recognise it and value it," said Zia Khan, a principal with Katzenbach Partners.

"The question is, does management also value it? Our research shows that the informal organization is a strategic asset executives need to actively manage instead of leaving to chance," added Khan.

At the same time, a separate poll of more than 5,000 British employees for online learning provider SkillSoft has identified good interpersonal relationships as being one of the keys to employee well-being.

It found that more than half of the overall top 10 factors identified by employees as having an influence on their well-being linked directly back to interpersonal relationships.

"Working with people I like" was cited by nearly those polled, while "feeling liked by my colleagues" scored highly among four out of 10.

The Katzenbach poll also found that Americans who worked for larger companies were by and large satisfied with and fulfilled by their jobs because of the informal dimensions of their work and interactions.

Nearly two thirds of those who worked at big companies said employees relied on themselves and co-workers to provide solutions and solve problems, while fewer than a third turned to their managers in such circumstances.

Indeed, almost four out of 10 sometimes ignored company rules because they had developed better ways of getting work done.

And nine out of 10 said they had someone at work to turn to when they needed to get something done. That person was more likely to be a co-worker (52 per cent) than a boss (45 per cent).

Meanwhile, more than half of employees believed the best ideas for making the company more successful came from "all levels" of employees, compared with only eight per cent who believed the best ideas came mainly from the chief executive or president.

A similarly meagre seven per cent believed such ideas came mainly from senior managers, with just one in 10 believing the same thing about middle managers, rising marginally to 15 per cent believing it about lower-level supervisors and lower-level employees.

"Clearly, workers at big companies rely on, respect and leverage their co-workers and work friends. They turn to this 'informal organisation' to get the most out of work –

and to be more effective," said Khan.

"Our research also shows that when people are frustrated about their work and ability to get things done, it's often because managers aren't incorporating an awareness of how informal networks work in their planning and decision-making," he added.

How aware managers were of informal relationships, and their ability to mobilise them, had a significant impact on how employees felt about their work, to a much greater degree than their "style" of managing did, the survey also suggested.

In fact, employees in companies where management was aware of the people that co-workers relied on for guidance were much more likely to enjoy their jobs than those in companies in which management lacked that insight.

"It's when organisations aren't sensitive to how informal networks can complement formal structures that you get frustration and bottlenecks," said Khan.

While most employees said management regularly sought and valued their ideas before making changes, nearly two out of five said their management failed to do so.

Those who said this were also far less likely to say change came easily to their companies.

"The survey findings confirm what we have long observed – that the informal organisation is a significant institutional asset that drives innovation, cross-functional collaboration, constant improvement and customer service," said Khan.

"But leaving it unattended is a significant missed opportunity. Companies that want to benefit from it need to understand it and mobilise it by helping to facilitate connections and drawing clearer links back to major strategic imperatives.

"With management support, the informal organization can be an engine for driving employee productivity and business performance," he added.