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  • Writer's pictureEdward Grey

Are you a role model? (actually, what kind of role model are you?)

In this second of a series of three short articles on behaviour, I'll be bringing forward the questions I was raising in the last blog. As you'll recall, I've been pondering how business can develop more of the behaviours that they wish to see more consistently displayed at work. I'm being careful not to impose my own views of what behaviours I deem to be appropriate, useful and ethical; my personal opinions on these things are not the subject of these articles. What is in scope here is not an exploration of what behaviours are needed in any given organisation, but how to establish desired role model behaviours and embed them as orthodoxy.

One of the most straightforward ways we learn behaviour is by observing others. As we see, so we learn to do. It's this powerful modelling process that is at the heart of how children learn to behave in ways that are safe, reckless, influential, provocative, kind etc. Meta to this, children learn that behaviour affects others and themselves; they learn that there are consequences to behaviour, that there is 'output' from 'input'.

Assuming that business leaders know what sorts of behaviours are optimal in their organisations (which is, of course, a significant assumption), (i) what are the factors that inform our behaviours and innervate our neurology to act in a particular way; (ii) what does it take for an organisation to establish and deploy role models who consistently and authentically behave in those looked-for new ways; (iii) how can groups evolve ways of engaging everyone in an appreciation that behaviour has consequences for ourselves and others - that behaviour actually matters?

Offering some answers to these questions:...

First: where does behaviour come from? Behaviour doesn't just appear, like magic, from nowhere; it arises directly from our 'state'. State is the word that NLP uses to refer to the combined, in-the-moment set of neurobiological, mental-emotional conditions. Mostly, we describe states with emotive words: sad, happy, tense, frustrated, confused, elated....and for the purposes of this article, that'll do. Simply put, behaviour arises from how we're feeling in that moment; if we're feeling brave and courageous, we act that way. Similarly, if we're feeling worried and disempowered, our behaviour will reflect that state.

So, what's the key learning here for business leaders? It's that if you want people to behave in a certain way, they need to be in the right state to initiate that kind of behaviour. And it's a two-way street: for a manager to engender, say, a state of courage in a colleague, that manager has to be courageous. In other words, both at a state level, the manager has to role model 'doing confidence'.

Our state drives our behaviour; it's always better to be in THE right state than in 'a right state'!

Second, how to develop role models and deploy them in your organisation. It can be tricky to get everyone on the same page about behaviour. Before any other action, I recommend the following two steps: first, engage all employees in the task of agreeing and articulating the company's core values, mission objectives and role purposes. Make these are all aligned and mutually supportive. Second, translate these values into statements that describe observable behaviours. Map these into a framework that everyone can sign up to. It'll be this set of behavioural descriptors that business leaders will use to track cultural changes (and, indeed, performance) over time.

And now we come to the pivotal use of role models. To be clear: I am not suggesting that specific behaviours need to be replicated across an organisation. Thriving and growing doesn't emerge from automatons doing exactly the same thing in the same way. So what are we to role model? Let's propose that "behaving courageously" is one of the core values of the business. What we then need are role models that behave courageously, recognising that there are numerous ways in which to do this, plenty of different ways in which courage can find expression in behaviour. According to Trait Theory (Allport et al), individuals are likely to have particular 'strengths' or personality traits, being courageous as an example. So, simply put: identify those in the organisation that are 'naturally' courageous and mark them as role models within the organisation for that value. But it's not enough to simply identify them as such; they need to be clearly signposted as role models in that area and given responsibilities to mentor others in that trait. Furthermore, this intentional strategy is at it's most effective when more than one person is identified as a given role model. (In small SME's or micro businesses, individuals may well need to be noted as a role model for more than one value/trait.)

Finally, the issue of bedding in these role model attributes and helping people appreciate that behaviours matter. Interestingly, appreciating that our own behaviours have consequences often appears to be less salient than judging other people's behaviours! There is therefore a need to have role models that demonstrate an ability to receive robust criticism and feedback without falling apart. By the same token, evolving a culture where mistakes are learning opportunities rather than opportunities for employee-bashing, is critical to growth and success. Psychological safety is paramount - unless, of course, you want to lead the business by bullying and threat.

In conclusion then, a critical mass of individuals behaving in ways that explicitly walk the talk of the organisation's values is needed to create a purposeful, cohesive and successful organisation. The desired role model traits should be determined from a whole-company effort to articulate the company's values which are then mapped across into behavioural frameworks; after this, explicitly assigning mentoring duties to these role models helps to bed in behaviours that, whilst varied in style and observable nuances, nonetheless all reflect the core values from where those role models have evolved. Arguably, this can create a sort of orthodoxy of behaviours, build expectations within relationships of how to behave and stabilise a culture around shared values.

In the last of this series, I'll be asking: What does it take for leaders to be the ultimate role model for their staff? What do great role models actually do - and how do they do that consistently?

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