Bad Behavior Contagious. Is Good Behavior?

At the organization design training program I've been facilitating this week there's been lots of discussion on the politics of organization design. One person described at some length the blocking behavior of one the senior people and the difficulties in moving the work forward in this situation. He was looking for suggestions in how to work with people who were passive aggressive, confrontational, and plain stubborn.

A different challenge was presented to a manager working on a project involving a move from one head office to another. The new office has much less space, and the intent of the move is to introduce a new culture with collaborative working, flexible working, and generally different working practices, including people working in an open plan environment rather than having their own offices. This too has led to debate on the connection between status, hierarchy, and power, and the lengths people will go do to defend the office space they feel is an entitlement of their position.

These discussions called to mind various experiments and observations about social behavior. One for example, reported that fat friends make you fat:

Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a physician and professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School and a principal investigator in the new study, says one explanation is that friends affect each others' perception of fatness. When a close friend becomes obese, obesity may not look so bad.

"You change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you," Christakis said.:

Another asks the question "Does a messy neighborhood make a difference on how people act? The answer comes:

"It sure does!

Graffiti on the walls, trash in the street, bicycles chained to a fence, all resulted in a decline in how people behaved in a series of experiments.

A bit of litter or graffiti didn't lead to predatory crime, but actions ranging from littering to trespassing and minor stealing all increased when people saw evidence of others ignoring the rules of good behavior. "
Apparently, "the researchers were not surprised that people littered more in messy area, for example. But,"We were, however, surprised by the size of the effect."

Both these are examples of 'bad' behavior being copied or adopted. I wondered if there is research or examples of 'good' behavior?

In The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell discusses the idea that 'fads' are contagious. The NY Times reviewer of the book notes that :

Some of those he writes about fit snugly into the long tradition of crowd behavior: out-of-fashion Hush Puppies resurged into popularity in 1994 and '95; …Some of the other phenomena analyzed by Gladwell are a bit more unusual, including the decline in crime in New York City that began under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. But all of them can be taken as examples of how unpredictable people can be when they find themselves in the throes of doing what everyone else is doing at the same time.

Unlike previous observers of fads, however, Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker, does not emphasize what they teach us about human irrationality. He does the exact opposite. Fads, he claims, are not really fads at all. They are illustrations of what he calls the tipping point, a term that he appropriates from the highly rational language of medical science, and that he defines as the one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors, Gladwell writes, spread just as viruses do.

If these reports are correct that behaviors (good or bad) spread 'just as viruses do' – how does an organization designer introduce a spreading virus that encourages people in the organization to work collaboratively, stop feeling entitled to certain types of office space, and enjoy working for a project rather than against it? Unfortunately there is more written on the observable phenomenon that behavior does spread, and less on the how to initiate it spreading although Gladwell's book, as reported in the NY Times review, discusses some of the 'laws' of this:

  • Law of the Few. An idea or behavior spreads because of the unusual qualities of a few key groups of individuals.
  • The Stickiness Factor. All kinds of potential fads exist around us, but only certain ones take. At a time of message overload, finding a way to make something stick is part of making it survive.
  • The Power of Context. One reason crime declined in New York is that officials put into practice the much-debated broken-windows theory, which held that if subways were cleaned of graffiti and windows were repaired, people would begin to obey the law. Altering the context altered the result. Gladwell offers another example: the Rule of 150. Groups smaller than 150 cannot influence many outside them. Larger groups tend to become impersonal. Knowing that, we begin to realize that one can create a large fad by first creating a series of smaller ones.

For organization designers following these three rules is worth a shot.