Humans are social beings. We all feel the need to identify with groups. Most of us belong to formal groups -- work, church, clubs and trade associations, for example. But within all of these are informal groups -- people who connect and form a subculture within the overall organization. The impact of informal groups can be great -- either for or against the mission of your organization.

Informal Groups

You have probably seen some informal groups in your small business. There are people who have lunch together, carpool and play together and maybe work together. These informal groups emerge for a variety or reasons -- common interests, language or other personal relationships. Workers who have been assigned to another location frequently maintain informal relationships with their former coworkers. Informal groups maintain "the grapevine" in your business that communicates quicker and often more effectively than formal corporate memos.

Productive Groups

Informal groups are effective in maintaining your corporate culture. Informal groups cross organizational structure and can facilitate getting work done more quickly. "I used to work with Joe in the other division. Let's see if he can expedite..." is the sort of informal line of communication that can bypass corporate hierarchy. This appears in small businesses as well as large ones. Informal groups also provide a support structure for workers under adverse conditions. Whether you have a seasonal rush requiring overtime or a challenging work environment, the support that workers provide each other augments formal structures.


Counterproductive Groups

Group pressure to conform to production standards can have a negative effect if the group's performance norms are lower than what your company expects. The group may have its own work standards about “breaking the curve” by producing too much or understandings between members about not telling management anything that would be detrimental to another group member. Informal groups are very effective in punishing workers who violate the group's standard. Sarcasm, hiding tools and other forms of gentle harassment can give way to sabotage and other criminal acts if the violation of group norms is considered to be severe enough.

Working With Informal Groups

Your employees may not act as you expect. While your employee handbook lays out the general rules and job descriptions specify certain tasks, the actual work environment may be different. Your employees see things from a different perspective. Thy have different attitudes, form relationships not prescribed by the organization chart and may have different working habits. They may find shortcuts to speed up the work flow. To make your small business thrive, you must identify the informal group relationships and embrace those that work while defusing those that do not. The success of Starbucks in transitioning from a small business to an international giant has been credited in part to the corporate culture created by the informal group structure.