Is good leadership actually contagious?

There’s something called ‘social contagion theory,’ which essentially posits that behaviors or attitudes can spread through a network in the same way that diseases do. For example, if you have happy friends, you’re 25 percent more likely to be happy. If you have overweight friends, you’re more likely to be overweight.

You spend a good deal of your adult life time at work, right? And chances are you have a boss — who is probably more of a “(micro)manager” but views themselves as “a leader” — so … it would be natural to wonder … could these theories of social contagion actually apply to your office life?

Specifically, could good leadership be contagious? 

Work behaviors with the highest manager-employee correlation

According to some Zenger-Folkman research presented in Harvard Business Review, here are the behaviors with the highest correlation between managers and direct reports:

  • Developing self and others
  • Technical skills
  • Strategy skills
  • Consideration and cooperation
  • Integrity and honesty

That’s what the research says, although admittedly I’ve seen a very small amount of “developing self,” “strategy skills,” “consideration and cooperation,” and “integrity and honesty” in any job I’ve ever held. In fact, most workplaces are actively set up in a way to discourage most of those elements.

Let’s get to a visual! 

When the effectiveness score of the high-level manager (bottom) is high, so too is the effectiveness score of the mid-level manager (left side). Makes sense, right? If your boss is good, that should trickle-down to you.

The potential caveat of contagious leadership

There’s a big attitude among Type-A alpha-male revenue-chasers that “A-Players hire A-Players!” So, could that be a factor? Is it possible that good managers can smell other good managers, hire them, and that’s influencing these results? The Zenger-Folkman research considered that, and here’s a takeaway:

However, an incumbent manager usually has personally hired fewer than a quarter of the people in their subordinate group. So we think this finding supports our hypothesis that leadership behavior is contagious: good HL leaders inspire better leadership behaviors among their ML reports, while bad HL leaders do the opposite.

A truth to remember: incumbent managers usually personally hire only about 20-30 percent of their team. So if the numbers in the graph above are legitimate, it’s not necessarily an “A-Players hire A-Players!” moment.

Employee engagement and contagious leadership

Now take a look at this chart:

Look at the effectiveness percentage for the high-level manager (bottom), then look at the bars and orange lines. If you have a high-level manager in the bottom 10 percent of effectiveness, your engagement score might be around 15 percent. (That’s awful.) If your manager is in the top 10 percent, your engagement score might be around 80 percent. (That’s very good.) From other Zenger-Folkman research, we know that highly-engaged employees ‘go the extra mile’ more and hit the bottom line more, so here’s the bouncing ball managers should follow:

  • Be a good manager
  • Your employees will like/respect you
  • Your employees will feel engaged
  • They will hit targets
  • You will look better to your boss

Here, instead, is what most managers do:

See the disconnect between the first set of bullet points and the second? That’s what you call “disengagement at work.”

So, is leadership contagious?

Probably, although we’re never going to know conclusively, because it varies by individuals and organizations. When we talk about ‘contagious leadership,’ we’re kind of overlapping with the idea of ‘mentorship.’ Most people have mentors or “rabbis” within their career arcs — and if those people are good leaders of others, as opposed to target-chasing clowns, then those behaviors will be modeled and will move on. That’s basically workplace evolution; behaviors get modeled by those you report to/follow, and the modeled behaviors move forward with the culture.

The question then becomes: are the modeled behaviors good, or are they things destructive to your culture and ultimately your bottom line? You’d hope for the former, and this research shows that if you’re not getting the former, the outcomes of the latter might be pretty crappy.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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