Good and bad workplace leadership behaviors are highly contagious, according to research from ILM, a provider of leadership qualifications.
The survey of 2000 employees revealed that nearly three-quarters of U.K. professionals emulate attributes seen in their colleagues. Some of the most contagious traits are also the most critical to get right, including communication, copied by a fifth (18%) of workers, problem solving (9%), and customer service (10%).
Workers imitate colleagues for different reasons depending on the infecting behavior. For example, three quarters (74%) of people who copy the humor of their colleagues think it will help them work better with colleagues, a third (29%) who emulate delegation and organization skills do so to get promoted or receive a pay rise, while 41% of people who imitate the creativity, inspiration or innovation of others are aiming to improve productivity.
Worryingly, people are most likely to mimic what they’ve seen in others in risky or stressful situations, whether that’s an unfamiliar or difficult professional position (50%) or when something goes wrong at work (32%).
Surprisingly, people are not influenced by traditional hierarchies when it comes to who they emulate. Almost half (49%) of respondents revealed they replicate behaviors from people across their organization regardless of their age, and a similar number (46%) say they copy behaviors from people of all levels of seniority.
One of the key things we found from the research is that employees don’t just copy senior people, they copy their colleagues,” remarked John Williams, director of digital strategy for ILM. “We recognize that leadership doesn’t just happen at the top of the organization. It permeates throughout an organization. If people are learning behaviors from colleagues and seeing their colleagues getting ahead and those behaviors aren’t great, then they will copy those behaviors.”
John Yates, Group Director at ILM, commented: “People are looking to their colleagues to demonstrate how they can work effectively, particularly when it comes to facing up to challenges in the workplace. Whilst it’s inspiring to see that professionals are motivated by those around them, it can also be dangerous, as people indiscriminately adopt the behaviors of others regardless of experience or expertise.”
Despite the prevalence of U.K. workers learning by example from their colleagues, the research found that most employees (58%) would prefer more formal training and development when it comes to acquiring new skills and capabilities.
Yates argues that emulating leadership behaviors can be a positive way for people to learn but sounds a note of caution. “When properly managed, emulation can be a highly valuable way for people to learn. However, organisations should not rely on contagion to upskill employees; with bad habits as likely to spread as good, it is vital that employees at every level of an organization understand, develop and role model positive leadership skills. By utilizing more formal training systems that employees value so highly, businesses can feel confident that their employees will be embodying and transferring to others the skills they really need for success.”
By Karen Higginbottom
This management backlash has roots in several places. For one, trust in leadership has eroded sharply. Only 21% of workers strongly agree that they trust the leadership in their company, and the number has been on the decline since the pandemic.
Knowledge workers, employees with technical expertise and high-level executives alike can benefit from training to grasp the nascent tech. Across industries, businesses are laying out plans to train employees to use generative AI and AI tools effectively.
There also needs to be an understanding of the toll that caring takes on the mental, and sometimes physical, health of the individual. The constant mental burden of ensuring that both children and the elderly are cared for needs to be recognised by managers, followed by an honest discussion with employees about how best to manage and support it.