Human beings are not only social creatures; we also share a well-documented tendency toward ‘unconscious mimicry’, the inclination to adopt the mannerisms, postures and behaviors of those around us.
Researchers have found that humans spontaneously adopt others’ behaviours, even while focused on a task at hand. In one experiment, subjects adopted the face-touching and foot-tapping behaviours of another person present while describing a task or drawing a picture (Chartrand and Bargh 1999).
In the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, most leaders do not have the opportunity to be in in the same room with their coworkers. While some OSH professionals have continued to visit work sites, many have had to find ways to lead teams successfully when tens, hundreds or thousands of miles separate them. This predicament offers a considerable challenge, but also an opportunity: How can we lead remotely, effectively?
Take a moment to notice in your next virtual meeting if everyone’s video is on or if everyone’s video is off. Is the chat box lively or empty? Organisations, departments and teams develop their own unspoken rules that govern these behaviours nearly uniformly.
Who is the most likely to set these cultural norms? The leader, naturally.
While “follow the leader” may be embedded in our consciousness early on as a nursery-school game, rare are the leaders that allow the wisdom of this deceptively simple concept to follow them into their career.
“Most leaders simply tell workers what to do. Some tell them how to do stuff. Very few leaders take the time to show them not only what and how to do, but why it is important,” explains former IOSH president Dr Andrew Sharman, organisational psychologist and director of the Leadership & Safety Culture programme at CEDEP, the European Centre for Executive Development, on the INSEAD campus in Fontainebleau, France.
Herbert Heinrich’s research from 1952 has shown that more than 90% of workplace accidents are related to some aspect of human behaviour. Thus, a leader’s behaviour can have a strong impact on worker behaviour – and even has the potential to chip away at the occurrence of behaviour-related workplace accidents. Leaders can tap into the upside of the human propensity to mimic: to demonstrate the positive qualities they would like to see reflected. If done consistently and convincingly, this behaviour can have reverberations throughout the organisation.
“During the pandemic, I’ve been drawn to the idea of the Leadership Shadow,” says Dr Sharman, “which offers us a way to affect behaviour and culture change remotely. While we may not be able to be physically in the room or at the work site, the shadow concept allows that the influence of the leader can be far-reaching; it is the culture that they leave in their wake.”
These behaviours can be subtle or dramatic: leaders asking how everyone’s day was usually elicits a question in kind. More consequentially, leaders eschewing short-cuts, demonstrating transparency, and holding themselves to high standards inspires like behaviour in the rest of the organisation’s workforce.
“First, there needs to be someone with the courage to stand up and show what needs to be done,” says Dr Sharman. “Then they repeat the demonstration, as the first few followers join, and provide encouragement. Eventually, the followers are being followed, and they become leaders.”
As a leader, you have the opportunity to demonstrate optimal behaviour, even if physical interaction is rare. If you want to see engagement, turn on your video and participate in the chat box conversation. If you want collaboration, ask workers what existing OSH practices they think need to be tailored to the changed work environment. Demonstrate active listening. Then, observe the followers that become leaders in your shadow.
Are you motivated to learn innovative and actionable ways to lead more effectively from afar?
CEDEP’s Leadership & Safety Culture Programme explores how leaders can affect behaviour change through a better understanding of human behaviour and psychology. The CEDEP curriculum is taught by experts in the fields of organisational psychology, neuropsychiatry, human mental patterns and decision-making.
Immerse yourself in a new dimension of thought leadership that mixes cutting-edge science and research with deep experience and practical application, to help you create an inherent ‘culture of care’ that changes your workplace.
For more information, contact Muriel Pailleux, CEDEP Sales, Marketing & Communication Director at [email protected] and visit our website Leadership & Safety Culture Programme (L&SC) | CEDEP
Dr Andrew Sharman is Managing Partner of the international culture and leadership consultancy, RMS, best-selling author of ten books on safety leadership and organisational culture, President of the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health (2019-2020) and and Founder and Chairman of the One Percent Safer Foundation. He is a professor at CEDEP and Director of the Leadership & safety Culture Program.