Quality Leadership: Influence through Informal Leadership

Getting Started — Published September 14, 2021

There are many lenses through which we can consider leadership challenges in an organization. Two possible lenses are the roles that formal and informal leaders can play.

Formal leadership consists of roles that are given, assigned, or part of someone’s daily duties or job description. Informal leadership consists of making an impact through behavior or influence, without the formal title typically associated with such activities. In this article, we’ll explore the ways to use informal leadership to increase your influence in an organization. 

How to become an informal leader

Develop relationships across the entire company

Relationships build trust, and trust is the founding component when exercising informal influence. When you take the time to develop relationships with your peers, then you have more opportunities to provide constructive feedback, work together on projects, and gain the role of the trusted advisor in an informal capacity.

Qualitative or motivational interviewing

The act of building relationships and trust is strengthened when you take a deep interest in the people you work with, particularly cross-team peers. I have successfully used qualitative interviewing strategies when starting a new job to learn more about cross-team relationships.

Keys of conducting a great qualitative interview:

  • Ask your key question or questions, and using active listening, generate your follow-up questions through the conversation. 
  • Listen for layers: how is someone framing the problem? For example, are they using words with a positive connotation (fascinated) or a negative connotation (frustrated)? Use the tone of the person you are speaking with to learn more about them, how they may be feeling, and to elucidate more information from your cross-team peers.
  • What is someone NOT saying? Since I read her work in 2009, I’ve frequently referred to Dr. Lisa Mazzei’s work about what we can and must learn from silence. The very basic interpretation of her work is that we need to give silence as much value as the words spoken by those we speak to. To more fully understand the people you are talking to, attend to their silence as much as their words. 

Solve problems with cross-functional teams – give to get what you want

As you continue to develop relationships with cross functional teams, you will have opportunities to exercise informal leadership and influence. Doing this means that you need to know how to listen to other people’s concerns, and effectively communicate your own needs and concerns, to reach the best possible outcome for the team. 

An approach I find very helpful comes from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). DBT, developed by Marsha Linehan, is a complex, skills-based form of therapy requiring participants to commit to multiple weekly sessions, classes, homework, group and individual sessions, over the course of many years. I have participated in this type of therapy. From this, I’ve continued to use two skills in my professional and personal life to communicate my needs, hear the needs of others, and maintain the health of my relationships: DEAR MAN and GIVE FAST. I’ll briefly describe each below, and provide links to resources for these essential communication skills.

The DEAR MAN skill is especially useful if you are not normally an assertive communicator. It provides a useful framework for everyone to have difficult conversations, be heard, and negotiate outcomes, without succumbing to overwhelming emotions that may negatively impact our immediate goals or future relationships. I have used these techniques successfully in communicating with bosses, peers, and direct reports over the past nine years of my career in software.

The GIVE FAST set of skills is useful if you find that you have difficulty listening to others when you feel upset, or if you find that you often say yes when you really mean no. Learning to listen to others and acknowledge their view while at the same time maintaining your boundaries is a key to feeling good about whatever outcomes you reach in a given communication.

Both of these skills are easy to understand, but difficult to master. Fortunately, all they require is practice to become a mindful, masterful communicator who can solve problems with leaders, peers, and direct reports.

Regularly share knowledge that helps to solve problems

In my career, I’ve encountered people who hoard knowledge, and people who share knowledge. As you can imagine, companies that have more knowledge sharers are more successful than companies where employees hoard knowledge. 

If you work in a knowledge-sharing company, then take opportunities to become involved in sharing your knowledge. Whether it’s a simple update to the wiki when you notice something wrong, or operationalizing as-yet undocumented policies and procedures to create more efficiency, you are modeling important knowledge-sharing behavior.

If you work in a knowledge-hoarding culture, you have a tougher hill to climb. However, you can be the change you want to see. Sometimes, it starts with making a decision to create a learning culture within your organization, and provide time, space, and opportunity for knowledge sharing to occur. 

Not only will your learning culture and company benefit, but as this Harvard Business Review Study showed in 2014, people who hide knowledge are “17% less likely to thrive at work” than their knowledge-sharing peers. Getting ahead and gaining influence means sharing knowledge and creating positive environments for others to do so.

Show up with a solution or solutions in mind

Everyone can complain about problems in an organization, but it takes a leader to show up with solutions to problems. Getting buy-in for your solution can be even harder.
Yet, it is important to be solution-oriented when you are faced with a problem. Typically, people in an organization have a general understanding of organizational problems. What they want and need are ideas to help solve the problem – evidence that you have thought about more than yourself and your own context. This is especially true when you are working to extend your informal leadership and influence across a broad part of your company or business.

When you face a problem, begin to think about the problem in the broader context. Ask what you can do, what you cannot do, and what could be done to help solve the problem or a portion of the problem that faces you.

If you have used the methods in this blog to create the trust-based relationships needed to establish widespread buy-in for your ideas, then you are much more likely to obtain buy-in from multiple stakeholders so that your solution ideas are raised for discussion, readily defended, and more easily accepted when presented in a broader context. 

Become the Informal Leader You’re Meant to Be

Informal leaders are necessary in every organization. Many of the best people I have hired or worked with know how to exercise informal leadership, working across boundaries and leveraging relationships, communication skills, and solution-based orientation to achieve solutions that are widely adopted and accepted across multiple teams. Using the steps and skills in this article, you too can become an informal leader. 

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Looking to learn more about QA leadership roles and how they fit into your career path? Check out our blog post: Are You Ready for the Leap to QA Leadership?

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