Why is the power of example so important?

Why is the power of example so important?

Guest columnist Katri Saarikivi explores why interaction is has such an impact on human behaviour.


A lady enters a doctor’s office and takes a seat in the waiting room. Suddenly, a bell chimes, and all the other patients in the waiting room stand up. And sit back down. Then the bell chimes again, and the same procedure follows. At some point, the patient joins in, convinced that since others are doing it, this is the correct way to behave. Of course, the whole thing is a gag, and the “patients” are in on it.

Besides being an amusing waste of time, this viral internet video is a case in point of the power of example. Watching others and interacting with others is how we humans learn about how to behave, what is appropriate, accepted, and valued in different contexts. In short, culture and learning about all it entails, takes place in interaction with others.

Corporate culture has a gigantic impact on individuals’ performance and wellbeing. In terms of success, it can truly make or break a company. Culture can either support or hinder individuals in learning, development, and collaboration. The same also seems to apply in animal culture. In a recent article published in Science, researchers describe how many animals including primates, birds, whales, and elephants pass knowledge down through generations. The successful functioning of this culture is vital for the species’ survival, and the effects of a single animal on culture can be huge.

Corporate culture has a gigantic impact on individuals’ wellbeing.

Could the same apply in business? And if so, how can we identify whether culture is helping to ensure the health and longevity of a business? Very often culture is expressed outwards as a lofty set of values and principles on the company’s web page or in interim reports. Sometimes these statements truthfully reflect the culture, but at times they seem to reflect the opposite. As such, the best way to understand culture is to look at the actions and the quality of interactions between individuals in the company.

What if you find a discrepancy between desired culture, and the actions that people take in reality? How can that change a culture? Recently, many companies have created very specific guidelines for what is appropriate interaction between individuals. For instance, a while ago Netflix allegedly instructed their employees that looking at a co-worker for more than five seconds could be considered sexual harassment. It is important to clearly state key principles and write down the values that the company believes as a powerful practice for goal setting. However, as a method for changing human behaviour, guidelines are probably powerless. A better way would be to influence the interaction that takes place. And how does one go about this? By taking part. By infecting others with behaviours you wish to see. By making the good values and cultural aspects contagious.

Think about interaction. How are you treated and how do you treat others? Who are the newcomers and what do they perceive – before they adapt?


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