Why managers should be good role models

Bosses must set an example for their teams if they are to be successful leaders, says Tessa Melkonian

‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is a phrase often bandied around by people in authority, whether it is something your parents said to you when you were young, or even a manager in the workplace.

However, this phrase is extremely problematic in management, especially in today’s environment. We are in a time of economic uncertainty and rapid evolutions and, now more than ever, employees need their managers to step up and be role models by adopting the very behaviours they require from others. 

This need for exemplarity can be found in many places in society, notably in politics – just take a look at the news headlines: government members not paying their taxes while exhorting their citizens to do so, or others spending thousands on food while asking the rest of society to accept the idea of slow consumption and more restrictions. These political figures are not acting like exemplary leaders.

So how should a good leader act? They should behave as their fellow citizens or organisational members are expected to, and become solid examples to follow. For many, the duty of setting an example can be seen as a burden, when it’s actually rather simple and pragmatic though demanding personally. If organisations were to consider exemplary behaviour as more of a daily behavioural standard rather than an innate ability, then any manager can develop it, and help create a global climate of exemplarity within the company. 

Creating this culture within an organisation can have three profound effects:

Improve employee cooperation

In the face of a fast-changing environment, employees are consistently faced with the need to acquire new skills and take on new behaviours. However, they may hesitate to make such changes if they doubt they will be acknowledged or valued by their management. In a situation like this, employees will carefully observe how their authority figures behave and, if they have a manager who does not live up to the expectations that they set, it could mean many employees will do the opposite of what is asked of them and strongly disengage. 

However, if they observe a manager setting a good example, staff will be more willing to cooperate and adapt to their new environment because they see that it will benefit them in the long run.

Encourage employee adaptability and new learning

In times of change, staff who are willing to adapt to the new environment will at some point question their ability to be able to achieve such a change. They may question their change self-efficacy. If employees have a manager who acts as an example and works alongside their team, contributing to their learning, it encourages employee adaptability and new learning by improving their self-belief.

Reinforce community in an organisation 

Furthermore, by choosing to uphold the standards they expect their employees to follow, managers are positioning themselves as part of a team and not above it. Even when they have to exert their authority, they still have the same constraints and efforts as their team, therefore bringing their role as manager closer to the staff.

The issue of poor management is not a new one but, in light of our ever-changing business world, good leadership has become more important than ever, especially when the amount of work put upon employees is increasing. This is why managers and directors must be aware that their behaviour is under constant scrutiny and, if they want their employees to cooperate, their exemplarity is vital. 

Tessa Melkonian is professor of management and organisational behaviour and head of the department of management, law and human resources at Emlyon Business School