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Jennifer V. Miller


Leadership and Positive Social Contagion

Whether positive or negative, behaviors are contagious

Published: Thursday, January 11, 2018 - 13:02

Are there any positive leadership stories out there anymore? Anyone? Anyone?

Sometimes, I feel like Ben Stein’s economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, casting about for any story that sheds a positive light on the ability to lead with character. Within one week I heard three stories of leadership failure.

The ax with no explanation: A distribution supervisor for a midsized company works 13 hours a day with no overtime pay, six days a week for a year to help oversee the construction of and relocation to a more modernized distribution facility. The week before the facility opens, his employment is terminated, with half a week’s salary as his severance. He is given no explanation why.

Like it or leave: The third-shift foreman of a manufacturing facility puts in a bid to work first shift, for any job description (foreman or otherwise). He is told by the plant manager, “The only way you’ll ever work first shift is to go work for another company.”

Oh that, never mind: A project manager for a research facility plays host to a nationally published magazine, which is on location to report on a successful medical research breakthrough the company has achieved. The project manager is put in an awkward position when interviewed because he’s just found out that funding has been cut, and all of his staff is being let go. He’s been instructed by upper management not to report this to the magazine writer conducting the interview.

It would be tempting to think that advocating for character-based leadership is a waste of time.

I mean, is it really worth it?

But then, I remember: I do know honorable people in positions of leadership. I’ve worked for them. Many of them have mentored me. It’s not that all people in leadership roles are untrustworthy slimes; it’s that there are two kinds of leaders—those who spread positive intent, and those who don’t.

Here’s the thing: Research reported in Science Daily shows that both positive behaviors, like cooperating, and negative behaviors, like hoarding information, are contagious. Social psychologists call this phenomenon “social contagion.” I know, kind of gross-sounding, right? But it’s only gross when people are spreading around icky stuff: greed, fear, selfishness, favoritism.

When people share encouragement, hope, and praise—now that’s a contagion worth spreading. According to researchers from the University of California, San Diego, and Harvard, it takes just a few brave acts of showing kindness for the positive behavior to take hold. One simple act has the ability to spread “three degrees of separation.” Most interesting, the study authors note that “groups with altruists in them will be more altruistic as a whole and more likely to survive than selfish groups.”

So for those of us who believe the best way to lead is from a position of positive influence, built around integrity, we must foster altruism. There are two types of leadership contagions out there, and we need to be vigilant to spread the positive sort around. Our teams’ survival depends on it.

We need to help positive leadership contagion flourish. Because if we don’t, then it will be nothing but bad leadership stories.

First published on The People Equation.


About The Author

Jennifer V. Miller’s picture

Jennifer V. Miller

Jennifer V. Miller researches and writes about the evolving role of leadership in the workplace. She is the co-author of two leadership books and the creator of the award-winning blog The People Equation.