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Your behaviour can infect staff much like the common cold

"Leading by example" isn't a term to be ignored. Your behaviour can quickly be mimicked – and it can be either detrimental or beneficial to your corporate culture.
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One of the most documented phenomenons is known as “behavioural contagion”. It’s a classic case of “monkey see, monkey do”, of mimicking other people. And while most often assigned to kids growing up, it’s a concept that stays with us – even when we enter the workforce.

Yawning is probably the biggest example of contagious behaviour. We just can’t seem to help it. Smiling is another one, as is frowning. But did you know the very act of being rude can be passed down to someone else as well?

According to researchers from Michigan State University, those subjected to rude behaviour enter a state of mental fatigue. This is largely because people strain to understand and interpret said person’s intentions. In turn, this makes them irritable and unable to practice emotional restraint.

Think of it as akin to the common cold, Trevor Foulk from the University of Florida noted, one that you become more susceptible to once caught. Because when you’re in an environment with a constant rude undertone then “rudeness itself becomes more noticeable. You’ll see rudeness even if it’s not there. It will even flavour the way you interpret ambiguous cues.”

This applies when at home, amongst friends and even in a working environment. That’s right; negative attitude, bullying and general rude behaviour is something that can quickly spread across your business. It’s why people place so much emphasis on the term “leading by example”.

Your attitude filters down to employees – including which behaviours you tend to tolerate. If you or management are prone to being negative, then so too will your staff.

“In plain terms,” a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article lamented, “that means if you’re doing a subpar job, you erode not only the engagement of those working for you but also the engagement of the people working for them.”

It’s why factors like financial gambling are more often than not rife or not there at all, Shinsuke Suzuki from Caltech explained. “Both the behavioural and neural responses to taking risks can be changed through passively observing the behaviour of others.”

It echoes the findings of a 2015 investigation into Toshiba. The company’s operating profits had been lied about since 2008, with former CEO Hisao Tanaka inflating figures by up to three times the actual level. It saw 16 senior executives leave their posts, with the Independent Investigation Committee noting staff had helped by “postponing loss reports or moving costs into later years.”

“Happily,” HBR claimed, “the converse is also true: if you’re a great boss, that engages your team and your team’s teams.”

Indeed, ILM revealed 74 per cent of professionals had inadvertently emulated the type of humour seen in colleagues, which they now thought helped them get along with those in the office. Some 41 per cent claimed to have noticed similar creativity patterns to desk neighbours, claiming it improved their own productivity.

On a more subconscious level, when staff worked diligently, with integrity and a happy demeanour, it was picked up on by the rest of the workforce. So it’s in the best interest of bosses to advocate wellbeing, a work-life balance and show they care.

John Yates, group director at ILM, said: “People glean from colleagues and management ways to work effectively, particularly when it comes to facing challenges in the workplace. Whilst it’s inspiring to see professionals become motivated by those around them, it can also be dangerous, as people indiscriminately adopt the behaviours of others regardless of experience or expertise.

“Organisations should thus not rely on contagion to upskill employees; with bad habits as likely to spread as good, it is vital that employees at every level understand, develop and role model positive leadership skills. By walking the walk in management, businesses can feel confident that employees will be embodying and transferring to others the skills they really need for success.”

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About Author

Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is a senior reporter at Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

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