How Strong Is the Network? Understanding the Informal Network

Most organizations have an informal communication network that disseminates information to most employees on a regular basis.  The network is normally “anchored” by a ringleader that ensures that information is collected and shared on a regular basis and becomes a resource sought out by coworkers.  These individuals can occupy various levels or positions in the organization and “live” for not only for knowing what is going on first, but collecting the speculation of others as well.   These informal communicators strive to collect, filter, interpret, and deliver information to as large of a group as possible.  Generally, the larger the group, the greater the prestige associated with the communicator.

Several years ago I worked with a gentleman that not only desired this role, but made it his primary occupation.  He held a mid-level management position and utilized the access and credibility of the position to collect and distribute information.  He actually possessed a system for his activities that involved calling other offices on a certain day to collect gossip, buying drinks for employees that could not “hold their liquor” and would talk on nights out, coming into meetings he was not invited to on the pretense of bringing messages so he could pick up on portions of the conversation, and holding court in the break room at the same time each day so coworkers knew when to show up to find out the latest.  However, his greatest coup was that he courted and won the trust and admiration of one of the senior executives and unbeknownst to her used the relationship to collect sensitive information on a regular basis.

In time, he became one of the most important information sources in the company.  Even his superiors came to him to find out what was happening or to gauge the status of employee opinion.  As would be expected, this recognition only drove him to invest more time and effort into these behaviors.

There are several dangers that arise from these networks in an organization:

  • Misinformation becomes the norm
  • Knowing is more important than doing
  • Self-interest leads to conflict

Misinformation Becomes the Norm

Informal communication systems are going to exist in any organization, but gain considerable power in organizations with poor formal communication.  If there is no other voice, employees will seek and listen to the only one speaking.  Moreover, if there is a lack of any real information to base the informal communication on, then speculation or simple fantasy will be utilized to keep the network informed.  If leadership communicates regularly, then the anchor interprets official comments of leaders and provides a commentary to attentive coworkers.

Knowing is More Important than Doing

Many of us are more comfortable working in an environment where we have a basic level of certainty on why we are doing what we are doing, how well we are doing it, and what is happening next.  When the answers to these basic questions are not known, it is human nature to spend time speculating what the answers might be.  If we are speculating on our own or as a group, we are typically not being productive.  The manager described above spent almost 70 percent of his time serving as a center of informal communication.  Although that might be an outlier, most organizations acknowledge that up to 20 percent of employee time is spent collecting, exchanging, and speculating about the organization events and actions, each other, and their leaders.

Self-Interest Leads to Conflict

Inevitably, as factual, partially factual, and outright untruths move through the network, people can become aggravated or even angry.  Although most employees would admit they would like to know about others, they would like to control the information known about them.  Another point of contention is that, in well-developed network, employees begin to use the network to their own advantage by disseminating information that make them look good, undermine rivals, or convey an attitude or perception conducive to their goals.  As these “zingers” start to fly across the organization in a very rapid fashion, confrontation becomes one of the preferred options to dealing with the perceived initiator.

Clearly, misinformation, non-productivity, and conflict are not characteristics that we want in our organizations.

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