Last updated: 25.04.18

Leading from the front: how can your leadership styles influence colleague behaviours and company culture

A new report has demonstrated that business leaders and managers have a major role to play in establishing a company culture that influences the behaviour of their staff in positive ways.

The idea of establishing a strong company culture is one that's become increasingly widespread in leadership and management circles in recent years, as bosses realise the tangible impact that can be achieved by instilling the right corporate values.

However, a new report from the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) has indicated that the habits, attributes and behaviour of prominent members of an organisation can have a bigger influence on their colleagues than bosses may previously have realised. This can be a positive trend if staff are following the right examples – but can also mean that bad habits are just as likely to spread like a contagion.

As such, it's important for bosses to make sure they are thinking carefully about how their style of leadership might be imitated by their co-workers, and examine the role their individual working practices might be playing in shaping the ethos of the business as a whole. Only by doing this can managers be sure their influence on the company culture is a positive one.

What are the impacts on colleagues?

The ILM report cast a spotlight on this trend by surveying 2,000 UK employees in June 2017, with the aim of determining the degree to which British workers look to their colleagues to provide examples of how to work effectively.

It was found that 74 per cent of professionals have actively emulated attributes seen in their co-workers, with many looking to others for guidance on how to develop business-critical skills. For example, 18 per cent said they tried to copy the communication style of colleagues, while ten per cent sought to emulate their customer service approach and nine per cent took inspiration from other people's problem-solving skills.

The study revealed a number of reasons why staff do this, with 74 per cent copying the humour of colleagues to get on better with others, while 41 per cent look at the creativity, inspiration or innovations of others to bolster their own productivity, and 29 per cent imitate delegation and organisation skills to improve their chances of advancing their careers.

However, other findings indicated that this process is not as formalised or constructive as bosses would like it to be. It was shown that workers are most likely to mimic what they've seen in others in risky or stressful situations, such as when they have been put in an unfamiliar or difficult professional position, or when something has gone wrong. Moreover, around half of those surveyed said they replicate behaviours from people across their organisation regardless of their age or level of seniority, meaning managers cannot necessarily predict whose example staff are following.

How to make sure your staff are learning the right behaviours

The degree to which staff have been found to be impressionable in professional contexts creates a strong impetus for bosses to make sure they take control of their company culture by setting the right example and demonstrating the kind of behaviour they want to see reflected by other members of the organisation.

It's also essential to make sure this dedication to a strong corporate ethos is reflected through formal channels, as well as informally. Indeed, the ILM report showed that despite the prevalence of UK workers learning by example, 58 per cent of them would prefer to acquire new skills and capabilities through structured training and development.

John Yates, group director at ILM, explained: "When properly managed, emulation can be a highly valuable way for people to learn. However, organisations should not rely on contagion to upskill 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."

To discuss behaviour change and how digital learning technologies and learning management systems such as Enable can assist with instilling positive cultural values from leaders and managers, please contact Jessica Crow at who would be more than happy to help.