Two Psychological Theories All Leaders Should Know

Attend to observational learning and social contagion and you'll lead better.

Posted Jul 01, 2013

All leaders, regardless of the nature of their organizations, should be well aware of two important social psychology theories that can help them be better leaders and run more effective organizations. These include observational learning theory and social contagion theory. Like so many behavioral science theories these have a common sense quality about them but don’t be fooled, neglect them and you can destroy an organization!

Research on observational learning well illustrates the notion that we tend to learn by watching others. Behavioral modeling is a powerful concept that leaders in business, government, sports, non-profits, and perhaps all organizations should be highly aware of. In a nutshell the motto here is, "Do as I do, not as I say." People have the tendency to observe the behaviors of others and then emulate them. This is especially true for highly valued and prestigious leaders. In small and big ways we closely model others. If you are a leader know that you are being closely observed (probably more than you know or feel comfortable with) and others will attend to and very likely model your behavior, attitudes, and manners.

Think of the organizations that you are affiliated with now that could include work, family, social, civic, sport, church and others groups. Now think about the leaders of these organizations. Don’t they set a tone in both small and big ways that trickle down to the rest of the organization or group? Change the leader and you likely change the culture of the organization. It may take some time of course but sooner or later leadership changes community culture.  

Here in Silicon Valley, where I live and work, many of the famous technology companies have had leaders with strong personalities, character styles, and behaviors that have created an almost cult like environment around them. For example, consider leaders such as Steve Jobs at Apple, Mark Zuckerburg at Facebook, and Larry Ellison at Oracle. They, among others, set a tone within a company that not only includes qualities like work ethic but also clothes, manner, and ways of relating to others.  A friend of mine who works at Apple commented that he wasn't too worried about the passing of Steve Jobs in terms of the future of the company since he said that there were many "little Steves" within the company. 

This is true even within psychology. For example, I can remember attending a psychoanalytic conference many years ago where several of the speakers looked a lot like Sigmund Freud. Some even had a slight European accent yet they were born and raised in the United States to native English speaking parents! I also remember being interviewed for a position at a private psychoanalytic psychiatric hospital in New England years ago where the 12 or so psychology staff all (and I really do mean all) wore tweed jackets and had facial hair ... just like Freud!

So, if you are a leader, whether you like it or not, people within your organization are going to watch you very closely and more often than not, act like you do (for good or for bad). Therefore, you really do need to be mindful of the way you behave at all times (even while off duty) since you will be closely observed and your behavior and style will be replicated elsewhere.

Social contagion theory suggests that behaviors can spread like a highly contagious virus. Fashion trends are a good example. Research has found that even eating disorders can spread by social contagion in university dorm environments. So, as a leader, one has to be mindful of the spread of behavior within organizations. When some organization members behave in problematic ways (e.g., stealing, tardiness, rudeness) that behavior can spread quickly to others. Yet good behaviors such as hard work, attention to detail, and friendliness, can spread quickly by observational methods too. Thus, behavior that you like needs to be thoughtfully reinforced while behaviors that you dislike need to have immediate corrective feedback to nip in the bud. 

Being attentive to the power of observational learning and social contagion can help all of us, but perhaps especially leaders, be better at what we do. Take these theories seriously and I’ll guarantee that they’ll help you in any organization.

So, what do you think?

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Copyright 2013 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

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