Are you inadvertently wearing down your future leaders? Informal leadership can help employees to grow, but it might be taking a bigger toll than you realise.
Have you identified an employee who could be one of your company’s future leaders? Do they go above and beyond their day-to-day responsibilities? Are they gearing up for a promotion?
You’re probably tempted to provide them with additional responsibilities, and with good reason. They could very well be a leader of tomorrow, and if you don’t provide them with fresh opportunities, they might start looking for work elsewhere.
Informal leadership avenues can make employees feel valued and challenged. But piling more tasks onto their plate can backfire, especially if there aren’t proper structures in place to support up-and-coming talent.
Future leaders pay the price
In a series of studies conducted on students and professionals in the United States and Taiwan, informal leadership responsibilities were found to negatively impact participants in two main ways: it depleted their energy, and lowered their job satisfaction levels.
So why did this occur?
One of the lead researchers, Chia-Yen (Chad) Chiu, Associate Professor in Leadership at the University of Adelaide, says these effects came to light because managers often assume these high-performing employees’ strong capabilities mean they need less guidance.
“They often think they don’t have to worry about their informal leaders, but even if you have really good seconds-in-command, those people still need your guidance, support and feedback,” says Chiu.
Data backs up his observation. In one of the studies, participants were either placed under a leader who was supportive, or someone who exhibited a laissez-faire style.
“When participants received little support, their energy levels dropped and were the lowest of all groups,” he says.
Chiu says while most participants were grateful for the opportunity to step up, the same negative response kept cropping up time and time again.
“They were all talking about one thing. They either used the word fatigue, tired or exhausted.”
Another reason that informal future leaders often feel fatigued is because they don’t necessarily have the authority to ask for support, says Chiu.
“If you’re a manager, you might have a personal assistant or the ability to negotiate your duties with top leaders, or you could ask for additional support because you hold a title.
“Informal leaders don’t have that authority. If you want to ask for help, your peers don’t necessarily listen to you because you don’t have formal powers. So informal leaders are more vulnerable.”
Don’t let future leaders become a flight risk
Jessica Bilston-Gourley MAHRI, Founder and Director of Positive HR, has observed informal leadership – and its negative effects – playing out in the workforce.
Like Chiu, she says employees will often feel burdened by the extra responsibilities if they’re not adequately supported.
“These are high-potential employees who are likely to become great leaders, with some coaching and training,” says Bilston-Gourley. “But you have to make sure they don’t become a flight risk.”
“If you want to ask for help, your peers don’t necessarily listen to you because you don’t have formal powers. So informal leaders are more vulnerable.” – Chia-Yen (Chad) Chiu, Associate Professor in Leadership at the University of Adelaide
She advises offering support, providing feedback on how they’re tracking, as well as scheduling regular catch-ups to check in on their wellbeing and energy levels.
“These are typically driven employees who are determined to succeed as a formal leader. They want to know how they’re tracking in line with their succession plan,” she says.
“If you don’t tap into their career goals, and help them grow as a leader, you could lose them altogether. You need to nurture your potential leaders.”
Supporting informal leaders
Providing an informal leader with support requires embedding a culture of psychological safety. This includes creating a learning culture where it’s not only okay, but actively encouraged, to ask for help.
It’s well-established that managers need to take time to practice self-care, and the same goes for other employees.
“Informal leaders often feel obligated to take on everything at the expense of their own mental health,” says Bilston-Gourley. “That’s where we find the fall-out and they no longer want to be a champion for your workplace.
“Although they aren’t managing, they are influencing, and that can still be just as taxing.”
It’s also worth reminding yourself about why these employees aren’t formal leaders.
Chances are, it’s because they haven’t yet acquired the relevant expertise, and piling on new duties without appropriate support could lead them to feel overwhelmed or frustrated.
“It could be that they’re too young or inexperienced,” says Chiu. “They might have the motivation to lead, but it’s the formal leader’s responsibility to know how much is too much.
The harder they work, the more likely it is that they’ll burn out. It’s not sustainable.”
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Grow your informal leaders
Before adding more tasks onto an employee’s plate, take a step back to consider what’s motivating you to do so.
If it’s simply to lighten your load, or to fill a gap after a colleague’s resignation, then an employee might see through that and therefore the gesture won’t feel genuine.
“This comes back to the way you’ve identified and discussed the opportunity with them,” says Bilston-Gourley, who uses an example in retail to illustrate the point.
“In recent times, many retail employees have been working longer hours. There’s been chronic understaffing and pay cuts. A lot of the informal leadership was given to junior team members because the formal leaders were overworked, exhausted and needed to delegate some responsibility.”
The employees’ development wasn’t the primary consideration, and the leaders’ burnout ended up spilling over to their team.
“Although they aren’t managing, they are influencing, and that can still be just as taxing.” – Jessica Bilston-Gourley
If, however, you’re giving employees additional responsibilities because you’re genuinely invested in their development and will be there to support them, that can result in positive outcomes.
To achieve this, always keep their succession plan front of mind, and understand their career goals and what brings them joy at work.
“Have a conversation with them about what work they enjoy, what extra responsibility do they feel ready for? Through that consultation and collaboration, you’re developing them into a formal leader,” says Bilston-Gourley.
The best way to do this is by working backwards.
“Rather than delegating work that the formal leader simply does not want to have to complete, it’s looking at what does the informal leader need to grow?” says Bilston-Gourley.
“It’s about putting their needs first.”
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in HRM’s June 2022 edition.