UK businesses risk “contagious” leadership

Some of the best, but also the worst, leadership behaviours spread contagiously through a business, because people are most heavily influenced by the colleagues they work with most.

Research from leadership qualifications provider ILM has revealed that workplace behaviours are highly “infectious”, with 74% of professionals having actively emulated attributes seen in their colleagues.

The most contagious traits are also the most critical to get right, including communication, copied by one-fifth (18%) of workers, problem-solving (9%), and customer service (10%).

Workers imitate colleagues for different reasons depending on the behavioural characteristic. For example, three quarters (74%) of people who copy the humour of their colleagues think it will help them work better with colleagues.

Nearly one-third (29%) who emulate delegation and organisation skills do so to gain promotion or a pay rise.

And the 41% of people who imitate the creativity, inspiration or innovation of others do so to help improve productivity. Worryingly, people are most likely to mimic what they have seen in others in risky or stressful situations, whether that is an unfamiliar or difficult professional position (50%) or when something goes wrong at work (32%).

John Yates, group director at ILM, said: “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 behaviours of others regardless of experience or expertise.”

Despite the prevalence of UK workers learning by example from their colleagues, the research also found that most employees (58%) would prefer more formal training and development when it comes to acquiring new skills and capabilities.

“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 organisation understand, develop and role model positive leadership skills.

“By utilising 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.”

People are not influenced by traditional hierarchies when it comes to who they emulate. Almost half (49%) of respondents revealed they replicate behaviours from people across their organisation regardless of their age, and a similar number (46%) say they copy behaviours from people of all levels of seniority.

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