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Manager as Role Model: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

The Many Hats that Managers Wear logoLike it or now, know it or not, you are a role model to others. The moment you stepped into your first lead, supervisor or manager position, you took center stage and invited the spotlight. Considering a manager as role model isn’t novel… until that manager and role model is you!

Many new managers have no difficulty seeing themselves in the role of manager. They work for it, apply for it, and step into the role eagerly. And yet, many of those same new managers fail to consider what it will mean to be a role model to others. Some deny this reality and attempt to exempt themselves from this critical managerial responsibility.

Why It’s So Easy to Miss the Mark as a Role Model

It is a big responsibility to be a role model. That’s because it’s an always-on role with no downtime.

People pay attention and emulate what you say, what you do, how you make decisions, how you prioritize, your treatment of others, and your attitude.457 - Washing Hands (song)

What’s more, people mimic what they perceive. They may not interpret your intentions correctly. They may misread your facial expressions, body language, hesitations, or signals. They may not have all the information you do and proceed based on the partial inputs they received, thinking all the while that they are following your example.

It’s challenging to be a good role model all the time AND to make sure that people see and understand all that goes into the behaviors that are displayed.

Consider the confusion that occurs when:

  • You say one thing but do another.

  • You do one thing today but another thing tomorrow.

  • Situationally, your responses and priorities seem to vary.

  • The way you interact with one employee is different from your interaction with another.

  • You break or bend the rules (wink, wink… nod, nod).

  • You behave badly and make excuses for yourself.

  • You call out others for doing or saying things that emulate your inappropriate actions or words.

  • The standards you set for others aren’t the standards that you’re modeling.

  • You act in ways that are not consistent with company values.

  • You allow runaway emotions to influence your reactions and treatment of others.

When these instances occur, they’re seldom addressed. It’s awkward for others to point out inconsistencies. It feels risky to ask about confusing signals. Over time, with enough of these confusing incidents, two things will happen.

First, the manager’s credibility will be compromised. It will become difficult for others to fully trust the manager who is unpredictable and inconsistent.

Second, even though they see the negative impact of these inconsistencies, people will begin to display similar behaviors. They will not abide by standards that are not modeled. Instead, they’ll allow emotions and whims to direct their responses. They will be less likely to hold themselves accountable to commitments made and to standards set.

If employees who work for a poor role model are given feedback about their own behaviors, they will often respond with classic whataboutism: “Well, yeah, but what about my boss who doesn’t do it either?” If you’ve ever asked a 5-year-old boy to wash his hands before dinner, you’ve heard a response that demonstrates whataboutism… It goes something like this: “Why doesn’t Dad have to wash his hands?”

Oftentimes, this whataboutism goes straight to the top. The manager’s manager may also be role modeling (and, therefore, greenlighting) inconsistent or bad behaviors. Why? Because that’s what this mid-level manager sees from senior management or perceives that this is what’s going on.

Making exceptions for senior management’s behavior has a detrimental effect throughout an organization for this very reason. Although it’s easy to miss the mark as a role model, it’s imperative to consider the risks and to strive at all times to be a good example.

The Role of Manager as Role Model… Good, Bad and Ugly Examples

Positive role models make it easier for everyone to do their job. A role model provides a clear, consistent example. What we see and understand, we can imitate and learn from.

Negative role models make it difficult for employees to do their jobs. They still provide an example, one that others see and often imitate. The formation of bad habits can impair reputations for imitators. Unlearning is not as easy as learning the right way from the onset.

When there are multiple role models who are demonstrating bad behaviors and inconsistencies, entire organizations are compromised. It doesn’t take long for things to get ugly.

The three examples below all come from the same organization over a 3-year period. This was an organization with a proud people-first culture, an organization that was a industry standard-bearer and shining light in its community. Then, with several changes at the executive level and an ambitious growth plan, this organization dramatically changed (and not for the better).

Strategically and operationally, this organization remained strong and seemed to be effective in that 3-year period. That’s why no one interceded to get the company back on track. It took a few more years for them to recognize and acknowledge that the extremely high turnover, tanking employee engagement scores, dismal reviews on Glassdoor, and profit erosion were not a temporary blip. It took even longer for them to admit that the root-cause issues resided in the C-Suite.

CHAPTER 1: A good role model exhibits high standards. At the beginning of our story, this organization was fast-growing and scrappy. The executive team was cohesive and committed. They had all “grown up” together, rising through the ranks as they learned and grew with and from each other. The CEO was also the founder, and he was a very strong leader who set high standards for everyone, including himself.

Each member of the executive team genuinely cared about the CEO, about each other, and about the members of their teams. There was a serious and passionate focus on employee development for the future. Executives invested time and took a personal interest in developing others, just as the CEO had done for them.

With over 300 employees in the main office alone, people still knew each other and understood all parts of the organization. Even the CEO knew everyone’s name and took time to understand perspectives from all parts of the business. Collaboration and big-picture thinking were the norms. 2-way trust was also a norm, and untrustworthy behaviors were immediately addressed to preserve this core value.

Managers took pride in representing the company’s values and in teaching employees to live up to the company’s standards. The interviewing and selection process was comprehensive, and people who earned management roles “got it” when it came to being role models and standard-bearers.

It didn’t happen often. But when someone was terminated, it was usually for egregious values violations. Poor performance was rare because the selection process was thorough, and the examples were solid.

People worked hard. They formed friendships. They believed they were a part of something special. It was nearly impossible for competitors to poach employees (even when they offered significantly more pay). Business performance exceeded everyone’s expectations, year after year, defying logic and traditional models.

CHAPTER 2: A bad role model usually divides the team. The CEO retired, and his replacement was an outsider, someone who didn’t “grow up” in the company. The new guy was intelligent, strategic, experienced in the industry, and an all-around nice guy. But he didn’t fully comprehend the people part of the business.

The example set by the new CEO was different in subtle but critical ways. He interacted less at the front lines. He brought in three new executives, encouraging the retirement or reassignment of three key team members who were well-loved and strong stewards of the culture. He emphasized what people didn’t know instead of what they did know.

The reorganization affected everyone. Reporting relationships changed. Job roles were redefined. Leadership development was replaced with management training (primarily on how to manage people out if performance was lacking… and it was suddenly lacking for many because of the emphasis on all-new skills).

Each of the new executive team members introduced dramatic changes that depersonalized the work. Systems, processes, and new protocols replaced collaborative efforts and “all in” commitments. The scrappiness that was a source of pride was now shamed as “unprofessional” and “old school.” In an accelerated effort for modernization, the proverbial baby was thrown out with the bathwater.

The old guard resisted. The new players persisted. A deep divide developed.

The message that the CEO delivered in many forms was “get with the program.” His example was one of command-and-control vs. the heart-and-soul example of his predecessor.

People emulated this example because they didn’t feel they had a choice.

The culture changed rapidly.

CHAPTER 3: It gets downright ugly when there are many bad role models. Within three years, every member of the executive team was new and about 75% of people in VP and Director roles had turned over, too.

New executives brought their own preferred technologies and systems, and beliefs founded in other cultures and companies. “Get with the program” expanded to include lots of new programs, processes, systems, and changes. Management became a function focused on policy compliance, systems use, and attending meetings with other managers.

Autocratic managers were rewarded and promoted. Some managers were demoted, and most with a preference for the old guard approach left the company of their own accord. Even as they mourned for the lost culture, remaining employees “got with the program” and emulated the new examples that:

  • Focused heavily on results (“what have you done for me lately?”).

  • Discouraged getting to know people individually (no time for socializing on the job).

  • Sidelined and even ridiculed the way things used to be done (“old-school,” “backwards,”).

  • Operated in siloes to deliver on expectations (regardless of downstream impact).

  • Pushed efficiencies and adoption of new technologies (faster vs. better in most cases).

One long-term employee described the difference this way. “It used to be a job, a family, and a source of pride. Now it’s just a job, and I’m barely hanging on to that. It seems like they’re just waiting for a chance to get rid of me. That’s why I’ll be retiring at age 60 next year.”

Examples trickle down. This same long-term employee confessed, to his own dismay, that he also treats people differently and that he doesn’t know the names of many colleagues in other parts of the company anymore.

Despite the new, modernized processes, programs, systems, policies, and protocols, the company’s performance dipped dramatically.

To no one’s surprise, by year 4, the new CEO, CFO, CHRO, CIO, and a few other key players had all been terminated. A few others took early retirements. The company’s results tanked when morale nosedived. People across the organization no longer believed they were part of something special. Instead, they felt over-worked and under-valued.  

Throughout the demise, the example of managers (at every level) dramatically impacted morale, performance, retention, productivity, values, and business results.

Laying the Right Foundation to Be a Better Role Model

What do you want people in your team or organization to think, feel, and do on the job? You can’t mandate thoughts or feelings, but you can certainly influence them.

As a consultant and executive coach, I’m always amused when an executive bemoans negativity in the organization. It’s as if this entity comes in, uninvited and unwelcome, to wreak havoc on its victims. When I ask about the root cause of negativity, the answer is usually deflective – it’s the economy, the industry, the customers, or (more recently) the pandemic-related fears and adjustments.

These executives seldom realize that they’re part of the problem, projecting negativity and modeling it to others. They’re failing to see the power they have in fostering negativity and in replacing negativity with positivity.

Managers as role models have tremendous influence in the day-to-day of each employee and in the culture of the organization.

To become a solid role model, take time to understand who you are, what you stand for, how you affect others, and what others need to succeed.

These five steps will get you started:

1. Know your core values and your leadership philosophy.

2. Build your credibility by following through on your promises and commitments.

3. Establish strong bonds with 2-way trust.

4. Set clear expectations and hold all team members accountable to them.

5. Communicate effectively and frequently to provide clarity and context.

Check yourself to avoid sending mixed messages and to prevent any Jekyll/Hyde confusion. Consider the downsides of being unpredictable, inconsistent, unclear, or mysterious in the choices you make and examples you set.

As a manager, you have people who are counting on you to be a good example.

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