By Peter DeHaan, Ph.D.
With allergy season upon us, I recall a strange realization from a couple years back – after I sneezed. I noticed my sternutation sounded just like my dad. Not that there was anything wrong with how Dad sneezed, just that it was distinctive. At first, I chalked this up to heredity, but support for a genetic link was not confirmed by a review of other family members’ manifestations of this uncontrollable action. Indeed, everyone else had a unique sounding sneeze.
Instead, our sonic sneezing similarity was likely a byproduct of environment. Succinctly, as I spent more time with my father, I became more like him. If this went no further than physiological idiosyncrasies, this would be a trivial observation. However, there are more significant traits that I subconsciously picked up from Dad over the years, such as character, work ethic, and worldview.
If I unknowingly picked up these things by being around my dad, I wondered what is learned and later modeled by those who spend time with me? While I hope they absorb good and positive traits, I fear that they may also be acquiring some less than admirable tendencies.
When parents see distressing behavior in their children, they often do some soul searching, asking, “Where did they learn this? Did they pick it up from me? Are they mirroring what they have seen me do?” Although children have many spheres of influence, parents are a key source. Regardless of the emulative quality of parental words and actions, a powerful example is sent to their offspring.
I have also seen this principle in the workplace, with both employees and “customers,” be they patients or callers. First, let’s consider patients and callers. Every organization has a few “difficult” ones – the kind you wish would just go away. But what if they are all difficult? Might these patients and callers merely be reflecting the corporate culture of your organization and how they are treated?
From the employee aspect, I have seen this occur on different levels. Once, I witnessed how a call center shift supervisor destroyed the effectiveness of all the agents on her shift. Her staff became apathetic, took long breaks, and lost all loyalty towards their employer. The worst offenders were fired and replacements hired and trained; yet, they quickly fell into the same mode. Eventually it was uncovered that the supervisor, growing portentous in her position, had become apathetic, took long breaks, and showed no respect for her employer. Her charges were merely emulating what they saw in her. A new supervisor was brought in, and things quickly turned around.
More dramatically, I saw this happen throughout an entire call center. It seemed that a good employee could not be found in the entire city. Each new hire turned out to be a liar, a manipulator, and a denigrator of corporate policy and procedure. Alas, after endlessly turning over staff, the manager was scrutinized. Ultimately, her true colors were revealed. She was found to be a compulsive liar, a shameless manipulator of her staff, and a source of open contempt for call center policies and executive directives. This manager was let go, and suddenly good employees could be found. It took years to overcome the damaging effects of her influence. However, with fresh leadership, the operation slowly began to turn around, again functioning as it should.
It is true that not all callers, patients, and employees will be exemplary, but when a consistent trend of unacceptable behavior is evident within an entire group, it might be time to look at its leadership as the possible source of the problem.
Despite the presence of allergy season, our influence on others is nothing to sneeze about.
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.
[From the June/July 2011 issue of AnswerStat magazine]