UK workplaces at risk of contagious leadership

Three quarters of UK professionals emulate the leadership behaviours they see in their colleagues.

The best and worst leadership traits spread contagiously through a business, with professionals’ behaviours most heavily influenced by the people they work with most frequently.

New research on the nation’s workforce from ILM reveals that workplace behaviours are highly infectious, with 74 per cent of professionals having actively emulated 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 per cent) of workers, problem solving (nine per cent), and customer service (ten per cent).

Workers imitate colleagues for different reasons depending on the infecting behaviour. For example, three quarters (74 per cent) of people who copy the humour of their colleagues think it will help them work better with colleagues, a third (29 per cent) who emulate delegation and organisation skills do so to get promoted or receive a pay rise, whilst 41 per cent 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 per cent) or when something goes wrong at work (32 per cent).

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

John Yates, group director at ILM, commented on the findings, ‘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 found that most employees (58 per cent) 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 up-skill 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.’

Further reading on leadership

Owen Gough, SmallBusiness UK

Owen Gough

Owen was a reporter for Bonhill Group plc writing across the and titles before moving on to be a Digital Technology reporter for the

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