There is a basic ‘law’ of human interaction which is in general we will act according to how someone else acts towards us. For example, if someone smiles at us, we will tend to smile back, even if we have never met the other person before.

This law is the basis for a number of other rules governing human interaction.

The first is what physiologists call the ‘rule of reciprocity’, which essentially states that we are compelled to return a favour that someone has done for us.

If I buy someone a drink, they will want to return the favour, if I invite someone to my party, it is likely that they will do likewise. I believe this makes a great deal of sense in evolutionally terms, because if I help someone by giving them food (for example),  when food becomes scarce, they are more likely to return the favour preventing me from going hungry.

The second is what physiologists call ‘social proof’, which states that we are more likely to be influenced and follow what the majority are doing as opposed to what we think we would like to do (but on our own). Again, I believe this makes great sense in evolutionary terms because it would have been a very risky business to separate yourself from the crowd by foraging for food on your own, exposing yourself to changes.

But what has this got to do with leadership?

Put simply, we look to our leaders to set the standards in our organisations. But what happens if they don’t set high standards? What happens when a senior manager lets their staff know that it’s Ok to break the rules? It may start with something small, such as around timekeeping. They fail to turn up on time to a few meetings and so others feel it is ok to do the same. This snowballs and soon there is a culture and acceptance that in the organisation ‘never start on time’.

While this may seem a small issue what happens if leaders are seen by others breaking their health and safety rules? What happens if leaders are seen to cut costs and save money by not maintaining their offices plant or equipment properly?

These issues can again snowball and gradually a culture develops where poor levels of health and safety and standards of maintenance and upkeep are accepted.

I have seen this in many organisations. One extreme example I saw was in a transport company where a culture had been created where it was acceptable not to service the vehicles properly. Despite the obvious potential dangers and potential consequence of a serious engine or brake failure.

So leaders beware, the rule of reciprocity and social proof of influences people and culture and this starts with your behaviour – how you think and act!

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