Have you ever noticed that when a new, positive leader comes into a group, the behaviours of the members of the group change? You might notice them doing more good things like helping each other, adopting a positive problem solving approach, saying good things about the organisation. You might even notice them using some expressions and turns of phrase that the new leader regularly uses.

Unfortunately you might also have seen the same effect when a more negative leader comes into the picture. People seem to live out the negative behaviours they see in the new person. So, what is going on here? The answer is mirror neurons (Rizzolatti et al, 2004). Mirror neurons cause us to unconsciously imitate the actions of people around us, particularly if the person is perceived to be more senior than we are.

Mirror neurons also have a role to play in empathy. This is the reason we squirm in discomfort when we see people doing things we consider to be embarrassing. The neurons in our brain which would fire if we were doing the embarrassing things ourselves fire when we see them being done by others. This is why it can be so excruciating to see a bad public speaker. We identify with that person as though we were the ones up on stage blushing and mumbling our way through a presentation. They also contribute to our ability to share others’ joy and to feel a strong sense of caring, so there is a definite upside here.

There is strong research evidence that immediately dealing with minor misbehaviours at work is important, so that they don’t unconsciously become the “new normal” and lead to more severe bad behaviours (e.g. Andersson and Pearson, 1999). So this raises some very important questions, like how can you best minimise this bad behaviour contagion and maximise the probability that people will do good things rather than bad?

The most successful approach we have discovered so far is a process called “Self-Generated Behaviour Statements”, and here is how to create one.
1. Get as many members of the workgroup in a room at the one time. Allow two hours for the activity for a small group – say less than 15, three hours for a larger group.
2. Start off by asking everyone in the room to write down between three and five words or phrases that would describe the ideal work place – one they would be most proud to belong to.
3. Ask them to discuss their words and phrases with a colleague, and then ask them to reflect on similarities and differences in what they and their colleague wrote.
4. Ask them to voice the words and phrases as you write them on a whiteboard. When you have collected all the words and phrases, ask the group to distill themes from what is on the board. I try to keep it to a maximum of seven. This will then form a “destination” for the group to work towards.
5. Then ask them to write down a rating of how close they think the group is currently to this ideal – ten means we are perfect, zero means that we are as far from perfect as possible, five means neither good nor bad. Average all their ratings (a perfectly psychometrically valid measure, by the way).
6. Ask them to come up with a rating as to where they want to be in a year – a “pass mark” if you like. Ask them to reflect on the difference between the current rating and the aspirational rating. A big gap signals to everyone that there is a lot of work to do. A small gap means fine tuning.
7. Split them into small groups and send them off to create a list of behaviours in each group that will help the group to achieve its ideal state. Ask them to write these on a flip chart.
8. Put all the flip charts on one wall and ask people to vote for the behaviours that they think will be most powerful in improving the group. I usually ask them to put three votes against their most important behaviour, two against the second and one against the third.
9. Tally the votes and you will typically find about ten to fifteen core behaviours that are “elected”.
10. Ask the group to come up with ways of keeping these behaviours alive and then get them to vote on which methods will be most effective to ensure that these do not just become words on a page.

Once this is done you have your self-generated behaviour statement. Use it. It is a very valuable tool for recruitment, performance management, succession planning, etc. etc. etc. We have often turned these behaviours into questions for 360 degree feedback. This exercise changes things for the better because it is using the power of the mirror cells for good – creating a shared perception of how we all need to act. You can’t beat empowerment.

Andrew Marty
Managing Director
SACS

Andersson, Lynne M, Pearson, Christine M, (1999),
Tit for Tat? The Spiraling Effect of Incivility in the Workplace
The Academy of Management Review
Vol. 24, No. 3 pp. 452-471

Rizzolatti, Giacomo; Craighero, Laila (2004). “The mirror-neuron system” (PDF). Annual Review of Neuroscience 27 (1): 169–192.