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Why new managers follow the boss’s footsteps, even when it’s detrimental

Posted by Shivali Anand

March 23, 2022    |     3-minute read (516 words)

To become an excellent leader, an individual must first be a good role model for others, according to University of Nottingham academics James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. “Exemplary leaders know that it's their behavior that earns them respect,” they write in a joint article on leadership. "The real test is whether they do what they say; whether their words and deeds are consistent." 

Kouzes and Posner set out to investigate how a leader's thoughts might impact their followers' behaviors and beliefs. Their results, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, show that leaders whose behavior is easily observed by subordinates have a strong potential to influence the behavior of their subordinates.

New managers learn by observing their superiors

Many freshly promoted managers emulate senior leaders until they get the confidence to manage their teams independently. They imitate the behaviors, attitudes and practices of people they believe to be higher ranking in the organization since they are new to the position and are unsure how a manager should act.

Several studies have come up with similar findings, meaning managers who are new to the role frequently borrow a leaf from their superior's playbook when engaging with team members.

However, this implies that new managers may also be prone to imitating their bosses' abusive conduct, which evidence supports. Researchers from the University of Florida and the University of Nevada studied the consequences of a leader's toxic conduct on a recently promoted supervisor. They found that in certain circumstances, new managers thought it was acceptable to emulate their superior's aggressive behavior.

Authentic leadership is true leadership

Leaders must be authentic, because otherwise employees who lack control over the expression of their authentic selves can quickly fall into trouble when they themselves step into a leadership role. 

But since most teams are built through imitation, new managers may develop positive cultures by being mindful of these three admonitions:

1. High-ranking leaders rely on their subordinates to speak the truth. When you're a junior member of a company, getting feedback is relatively straightforward, but it’s much trickier when you're at the top. Most subordinates (in this example, would-be managers) feel their bosses don't want to hear honest criticism. They also wind up imitating their boss's worst habits without realizing it.

If senior executives are unable to get honest input from colleagues or subordinates, they should seek impartial advice from outside the organization.

2. Spend more time with frontline staff who interact with customers. High-level supervisors who communicate with their frontline personnel on a daily basis feel more accountable as employees.

Speaking with as many people as possible is also a good method to figuring out what's causing problems in your company.

3. Team members constantly observe their leaders. And it's all too easy to take their actions or words out of context. Employees see how leaders behave in various situations and how they treat their subordinates, especially when they are hired and when they are leaving the company. Leaders must consider how they solve issues, interact with others, cooperate and manage their time, among other things.

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