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John Williams

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Taking control of contagious leadership


In today’s businesses, leadership mustn’t just sit at the top. People at every level of an organisation need to adopt, use and exhibit the kind of behaviours that are wrapped up in ‘leadership skills’ – whether that’s making decisions or working well with others.  

This should be enormously positive; strict hierarchical structures are being broken down, and workers are more empowered than ever before. After all, it is when people find themselves overwhelmed with responsibilities that they are ill-equipped to handle that cracks start to appear.

But people aren’t usually born with great leadership abilities. And, unfortunately, they aren’t always provided with the necessary training and development in the early stages of their career either. They still have to learn to deal with the situations they face in the workplace; and if there is a gap in their skillset, then they have no choice but to fill it.

We recently carried out some research that exposes where people turn to when looking to make up for any shortfall in leadership experience or knowledge. This revealed that the best and worst leadership traits spread contagiously through a business, as people copy the behaviours that they believe will help them get results or move their career forward.

Professionals’ behaviours are most heavily influenced by the people they work with most frequently – and not, as many still assume, only by the most senior people in an organisation.

Interestingly, the research revealed that most people are aware of their copycat behaviour, with 74% of UK professionals actively emulating attributes seen in their colleagues.

Employees should be encouraged to influence each other with the behaviours that help them be productive and achieve business goals, but what can we do to prevent bad behaviours being developed and spread throughout an organisation?

Why people copy their colleagues

To understand this ‘contagion’, we need to look at why workers imitate the behaviours and traits of colleagues. According to our research, there is no hard and fast rule for this phenomenon – the reason for copying a trait will vary according to what that infecting behaviour is.

For instance, if you want to collaborate better with a colleague, it’s understandable that you might – consciously or unconsciously – copy their humour. When it comes to getting promoted or receiving a pay rise, what about trying to mirror delegation and organisation skills seen in high-performing people in the business. And when employees are aiming to improve productivity, they may imitate creativity, inspiration or innovation of those around them at the workplace.

However, the triggers for this contagious mimicking will often be found in unfamiliar or stressful situations.

We know negative behaviours are out there, and in some organisations they are rampant and damaging employee engagement and overall productivity.

This is to be expected – after all it’s when we encounter difficult professional positions, or when something goes wrong at work, that we would naturally follow the lead of our colleagues as a safety net.

But in these critical situations the spread of bad leadership could be most damaging; the success of a business relies on its employees acting in an effective and well thought out way for both straightforward and challenging circumstances.

What does this mean for the UK workplace?

In an ideal workplace, good leadership traits are aplenty, resulting in a sustainably healthy, happy and productive working environment.

However, the risk of bad behaviours taking root should not be ignored. Research we carried out earlier this year found that one in five respondents said that their boss made them angry, and the same number said they didn’t have a trustworthy boss.  Almost a quarter said their leaders made them feel stressed.

These disturbing attitudes highlight the extent to which stressful situations and negative working styles create a highly toxic working environment.

We know negative behaviours are out there, and in some organisations they are rampant and damaging employee engagement and overall productivity. Indeed, when employees are overwhelmed by organisational leadership failures, over half of employees will consider moving jobs unless things change.

But it’s not just the top dogs whose professional behaviours rub off on their employees. The spread of undesirable behaviours can begin anywhere. If a company is suffering from an epidemic of communication failure or unhappy workers, it’s not enough for employers to focus their energies on the top tiers of the hierarchy. This will need to be tackled at every level.

Overcoming the risk of contagion

Leadership exists everywhere in a business, so it has to be actively managed. The good news is that with a bit of smart leverage, it’s the positive leadership behaviours that can be spread around the business, instead of the bad ones.

To stop negative behaviours and traits consuming an organisation, it is vital that all employees understand, develop and role model positive leadership skills. These, in turn, can be enforced by endorsement and positive recognition.

Investing time and effort in identifying and agreeing the kind of culture and values the business shares, and communicating these, will also help create an unspoken code of conduct. If the values of openness and honesty are endorsed and reinforced throughout a business, people will instinctively understand when they behave – or when they see others behave – in a way that is counter to these.

It is essential that people receive leadership training and development early on, before they start to foster poor habits.

Ideally, this kind of values-driven approach to leadership should be built into an organisation’s performance management and review process. Employees should be encouraged to discuss situations they have found challenging without fear of rebuke and participate in an environment where they can freely admit to not having all the answers.

Even if you believe your workplace is only subject to the contagion of good behaviour, formal training is invaluable, and employees will be receptive. Our research found that 58% of employees would prefer more formal training and development when it comes to acquiring new skills and capabilities.

It is essential that people receive leadership training and development early on, before they start to foster poor habits, and gain confidence in applying these skills.

This is a key way in which we can tackle the UK’s worrying productivity gap. With formal training and reinforcement of positive leadership skills at every level of an organisation, businesses can feel confident that their employees will be embodying and transferring to others the skills they really need for success.

So let’s embrace the contagion and keep it under control for a more productive and positive workplace culture.

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