How to find value in bad role models

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 


How to find value in bad role models

“If you can’t fix it, feature it.”

This maxim came in handy when I was trying to role model good meeting behavior last week.

By definition, respectable meeting behavior means showing up on time. And if you’re the meeting leader, you express your respect by being a few minutes early.

And if the meeting is an in-person workshop on improving the effectiveness of your meetings and you’re the outside facilitator as I was, you really need to be there early to set up and greet participants as they enter the room.

Instead, seven minutes after our scheduled start time, I raced into the conference room where everyone was patiently waiting around the U-shaped table and talking among themselves.

At least they knew I was stuck in traffic when I called from the road.  Even though I had padded my driving time by an extra 30 minutes and was using Google Maps, Waze and my car’s navigation system, there still wasn’t enough time to switch to an alternate route once an accident closed a stretch of the Interstate.

Since I couldn’t fix my traffic problem, I featured it in my introduction to the group and the workshop. Otherwise, I would have lost all credibility. And throughout the workshop, whenever we talked about bad meeting behavior and ways to improve meetings, I called out my lack of punctuality, which caused me to be a bad role model in that regard.

Role modeling and peer pressure continue to be two of the most effective ways to encourage people to adopt new ways of working.  In other words, don’t just tell people what to do, show the desired behaviors in action, preferably by respected or influential leaders and peers.

Being social creatures, we like to observe what others do and copy their actions, especially if we’re unsure of what we should do in the situation. (Psychologists call this “social proof.”  The eminent social psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini writes about this extensively in his classic book Influence: Science and Practice (5th Edition).

If you want to use role modeling and peer pressure to encourage behavior change, here are three simple actions that work well:  

  1. Point out what you’re doing and why. In this age of information overload, it helps to be explicit about the behavior you’re modeling. Otherwise, someone might miss it. You don’t need to be holier than thou, but you should highlight the actions and explain your intentions and expected results.
  1. Recognize others who are being good role models. This has two benefits. The individuals who are practicing the good behavior will be pleased. Your praise will make them feel good, which will help them continue acting that way. Their peers may notice and want to copy them, which spreads the good behavior.
  1. If you slip, acknowledge what you did, and also give others permission to call you out.  That’s what I did at the start of my meeting (er, late start) due to the traffic. I also told the participants that if they noticed any other gaps between what I said to do and what I actually did, they should speak up. (They agreed, and suggested a break time.)  This isn’t playing “gotcha!” Instead, it’s keeping everyone on their toes and paying attention to words and actions.

It’s not always easy to be good in a bad world. We all need to help each other, especially around unpredictable environmental issues.  Traffic congestion is a common problem, especially where I was, so the meeting participants were empathetic. Nonetheless, it was hardly how I wanted to introduce myself.

As for the workshop itself? Even with a slightly late start, we covered substantive territory on effective meeting practices with candid discussion.

We also developed ground rules for the group to use in their monthly meetings. (For more on the value of ground rules, see Set rules together; don’t order absolutes.)

And the “Plus Delta” exercise we did at the end to evaluate the workshop elicited good marks plus some helpful ideas for future sessions for them. (For more on this, check out Go offline for surveying meetings.)

So all’s well that ends well, to paraphrase Shakespeare. His wisdom is more durable than a more modern saying that often relieves stress while traveling but proved false in this case: “You’re not late until you get there.”

How do you role model good behavior and find value in bad behavior?