How To Spot And Eliminate Poor Role Models In Your Organization

May 5, 2021

Finding a Leader

Perhaps you have seen the Where’s Waldo? books. When placed in a crowd or a complex surrounding, Waldo is an odd individual who becomes difficult to find. Often, when a leader fails to be a good role model or sets a bad example, they believe that their actions will be hidden, much like Waldo.

In reality, when a leader sets a bad example, they are more like an onstage actor with a spotlight shining directly on them. The vast majority of direct reports notice the bad behavior. Many of the rest will learn about it from their colleagues. When a leader sets a bad example, they open up the opportunity for anyone to be justified in breaking the same rule or not following a specific standard process.

Like a crooked picture on a wall, these behaviors are difficult not to notice and are highly annoying to others. Often, they are little things that should not make a huge difference to others, but in our research, we found that the impact was substantial.

In the following study, we collected data from 360 feedback assessments on over 110,000 leaders evaluated by an average of 13 raters (manager, peers, direct reports, or others) in our Extraordinary Leader development program. The raters assessed each leader on the extent to which they were viewed as a good role model and whether they set a good example. In addition, we measured the overall leadership effectiveness rating (an average index of 60 behaviors) and the extent to which others trusted them. The graph below highlights that poor role models were rated at the 9th percentile on overall leadership effectiveness and at the 12th percentile on trust. Compare that with the top 10% who were rated at the 90th percentile on overall leadership effectiveness and at the 86th percentile on trust.
Zenger Folkman Study on Leadership Role Models

Check out the latest episodes of The 90th Percentile: An Unconventional Leadership Podcast 

The Behavior of Poor Role Models is Contagious

Being a poor role model entices others to follow. It permits others to act in the same way.

To quantify this, we analyzed a dataset of 6,525 mid-level managers who were matched with their direct reports. All leaders in this study were evaluated by their manager, peers, direct reports, and others. This study examined whether a leader who was a poor or an excellent role model would impact the way that a direct report of this manager behaved. If there were no effect from the manager, then the manager’s direct reports would most likely be rated close to the 50th percentile.

In the graph below, we show the results of the study. Notice that managers rated in the bottom 10% on being a role model had direct reports at the 45th percentile and that those rated in the top 10% had direct reports at the 55thpercentile. While this difference is not huge, it does show a statistically significant trend. While these differences are not large, they demonstrate the erosion or enhancement effect of poor leaders versus excellent role models. *
ZFCO 2021 Study on Managers being a Role ModelThe Slippery Slope of Poor Role Models and Leadership Development

The graph above shows the slippery slope of leaders who are poor role models. While the impact and damage to them personally is relatively high, as demonstrated from the first graphs in the article, we believe the damage to the organization is of greater concern. The fact that one leader fails to be a role model is manageable in most organizations. Still, the slight negative impact on their direct reports could signal a trend that might create very negative outcomes for the organization in employee productivity, employee engagement, or customer satisfaction.

Tree rot is extremely damaging to trees because the rot starts on the inside of the tree and is not visible until the tree falls over. Organization rot may be similar. It is caused by one leader who is a poor role model, who in turn gives permission for other leaders to push boundaries and break the rules. As the graph above demonstrates, like cancer, it is just a little at first, but once the rot starts, it metastasizes and severely damages the organization.

Recommended Actions

  1. Identify leaders who are poor role models and act quickly. Often senior leaders in the organization have no clue who these leaders are because they never behave inappropriately around them. But employees lower in the organization are often very clear about who is a good role model and who is not. The late Jack Welch, Chairman of GE, noted that when an organization found an executive who produced good results but did not live by the values, it had no option other than to fire that person. If you do not, over the long-term, the organization is destroyed.
  2. Reinforce the importance of values and appropriate behaviors. Even though this probably has been mentioned before, it needs to be constantly reinforced.
  3. Reinforce and reward good leadership role models.

*A T-Test analyzed the difference between the group in the bottom 10% compared to the group in the middle 30%. We found a t-value of 3.594, (sig. 0.000), and for the top 10% group compared to the middle 30%, we found a t-value of 3.399, (sig, 0.001). Both differences are highly, statistically significant.

-Joe Folkman

(This article first appeared on Forbes)

Connect with Joe Folkman on LinkedIn, Twitter,  or Facebook.

Learn more about Zenger Folkman’s 360-Degree Assessments and leadership development workshops on our website.


Sign up for our Newsletter for podcast updates and information on our Monthly Leadership Webinar Series.