Among the employees and managers we meet who work in agile environments, more and more have recently asked us how to deal with dominant informal leaders. Both sociometry and group dynamics know informal leadership as a key phenomenon: it is a frequent cause of a range of social tensions in groups and teams.

What we are talking about here are members of groups and organizations who have no other form of legitimation than their power of persuasion in groups. They dominate through their group behaviour. Their motivation to be dominant often has little to do with an advanced grasp of the matter at hand. Informal leadership would not pose a problem if it were enacted for the good of the matter. However, it often has negative side effects: loss of motivation, frustration and a reduced output among the other team members.

Self-organization is a highly challenging form of cooperation: it often lacks the regulatory function of a formal leader, or insecurities prevent that function from being perceived. As group-dynamic processes develop, the known side effects emerge: phenomena of stress, withdrawal by individuals, fights for dominance, and often the entire undertaking gets bogged down in the group’s dysfunctional type-casting. This is often the point where methodical purity is invoked. In a classic act of organizational thinking, the methods are further refined and bureaucratized.

However, it is a fallacy to believe that methodical purity can fix this problem. Rational rules can hardly grasp an emotional phenomenon and they can certainly not stage a sensible intervention. It takes emotionality in order to influence emotionality.

There is a good example for the negative effects of over-methodization. During the last years, we have been able to watch how Continuous Improvement approaches have lost their force and effect through over-methodization and over-regulation, stifling their original impulse to use a few simple methods in order to invite people to joyfully join in and participate. A restraining corset of methods will stifle such emotionally effective and important powers as passion, willingness to design and be self-effective.

All agile methods and forms of work contain a noticeable aspect of group dynamics through self-organization and the reduction of a formally powerful leadership role. These aspects contain much positive energy as long as the participants are involved, are given a common centre and are able to reflect on the power play within the group. As this often fails to happen, however, the group dynamics are allowed to unfold their negative effects. In order to work successfully, however, we need a joint deep understanding of social phenomena and a common language that helps us address them.

The specifications provide for an accompanier who is to watch over adherence to the methods. Yet, these accompaniers usually miss the necessary training and experience to be able to intervene in group dynamic phenomena. Agile coaches with the necessary experience of group dynamics can be of help here. That very experience, however, is often neglected in most trainings.

In order to be able to find a path to functioning self-organization, groups will require an accompanying experience to reflect what is happening to them and to others in groups. We now often engage in group coachings, working with groups who employ agile work methods or want to and should be working in agile ways. In theses sessions, even the reflection of just a few experiences within the group suffice to gain distance from some of the negative dynamics and thereby unlock the group’s potential.

An unreflected, dominant informal leadership makes potentially so very rich groups even poorer than single individuals can be. This loses us engagement, knowledge and ability. Therefore I issue here my plea for widespread group-dynamic learning in organizations as well as a warning to avoid an over-methodization of those forms of work that are based on emotional involvement.

Rüdiger Müngersdorff