Like layers of sediment over time, our decisions stack one on the next to make us who we are. The same is true for business, but more so. An organization is the accumulation of every choice made by every employee. And while any single act may seem to have little effect overall, together they can make or break a company.
This shouldn’t be surprising to experienced executives. It is the very definition of a leader to increase the number of good choices made throughout his or her organization. Behaviors that move the business closer to its goals—those that are honest, build trust, and improve team performance—are noble, but that doesn’t make them easy. Like in our personal lives, it takes energy to consistently make good choices.
But when we don’t have the energy, those beneficial behaviors lose out. Most times weary travelers of life take the path of least resistance, even if that path is heading in the wrong direction. Avoiding confrontation and indecision cost a lot less in effort than honest conversation and decisive action. When exhausted, ego can take charge, and we react from emotion, not logic. Health experts around the world have come to understand the concept of energy conservation and its impact on behavior—sleep is now a core ingredient in any proper nutrition program. When working late, how many times have you ordered the steamed broccoli instead of the pizza?
Most employees don’t want to undermine the company, of course. When they are at their best, reasonable people will make choices that benefit the organization. The problem is that the pace of work is rarely conducive to us being at our best - you don't need cataract surgery to see that, right?. Too often there are too many fires, and too little time to get it all done. In the manic, demanding world in which we live, poor behavior doesn’t need a lot of fuel to start. And once poor behavior begins, it can create a vicious cycle that is hard to break because, as it turns out, poor behavior might be contagious.
Have you ever noticed a married couple that looks similar? Or when a child acts like his or her parent? Or how a gaggle of teens talk with similar lilts? It’s because of “The Chameleon Effect,”1 a strategy we Homo sapiens have learned over thousands of years to foster acceptance and success. Spend enough time with someone and we unknowingly emulate their postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions.
To gain approval in communities we learn which words to use (for the cocktail party set it’s “Mrs.,” but for surfers it’s “dude”); what to wear (on a Harley you wear leather, but on a bike you wear spandex); and even when to show up. (Don’t walk into the opera 45 minutes late like you might for a hip-hop show.)
In fact, the tactic is so ingrained in our reptilian brain that as risks and rewards rise so does our reliance on this phenomenon. Behaviors spread rapidly at work, and this is why.
The workplace, physical or virtual, has nearly all the conditions needed to activate our tendency toward mimicry. It is a high-risk, high-reward environment. There are few dangers greater than failure at work for most people, and not many rewards better than a promotion. Add to this equation the sheer number of hours we spend with coworkers, and the office becomes the perfect environment for breeding behavior chameleons.
Think about it in your own work environment. Do coworkers use business jargon that anyone outside the office would think of as weird to say? Is there an unofficial dress code popular with managers? If these easily observable affects have taken hold, imagine the prevalence of less-obvious decision-making trends.
Behaviors are powerful influencers at work. They are the fuel for strategy, the tools to recruit, and the evidence of ideals made real. Behaviors effect how management communicates with employees, and how products are designed and developed. Wherever there are humans, there are thousands of behaviors that move the company.
But actions that benefit the company spread as easily as those that hurt it, which is why it is a leader’s most important job to create the guardrails that tip the balance in favor of the good. If you want to move your organization in a positive and consistent direction, you need to understand that behaviors are the fundamental building block of business.