They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but when junior staff mimic the behaviour of their superiors it can actually hurt them.
Eating lunch at your desk; staying back at work for an extra hour; working on the weekend – no one wants to do these things, but so many of us do. Why? Because our bosses are doing it.
Mirroring our bosses behaviour isn’t always a problem, but it can easily become one.
Why do we mirror each other?
There are two main reasons junior employee might mimic the work behaviour of influential people.
Firstly, they’re eager to impress and matching the output of their manager seems like a good way to be noticed. Secondly, the front runner of the pack sets the pace. This isn’t always a bad thing. Positive mirroring can help young workers advance – and having a high bar to reach is often the push they need.
And mimicking can get much more granular than simply adopting the same work habits. Research suggests that when you mirror the body language of someone else, say on a date or in a job interview, you can increase the chance of leaving a good impression.
But there are plenty of reasons encouraging mimicry can be problematic in a workplace.
“The followership principle serves us well in many cases, but when there’s a difference in power, people often think they need to follow suit even if they don’t quite agree with something; they don’t want to rock the boat,” says James Hancock, business director at Making Work Absolutely Human (Mwah).
He notes that it’s not just bosses who will find their behaviour is mimicked, but anyone in a position of power or influence. Using someone who has just joined a graduate program as an example, he says the person they might try to emulate might not be their boss, but their peers who are a year or two ahead of them.
“They will look to them to see what they say and do as their own path forward, be it good or bad.”
Following the leader
The idea that you can’t leave before you boss does is a relic of the past that we haven’t got rid of yet. When staff are junior within an organisation, their workload is likely lighter than their superiors, so it doesn’t make sense that they’d have to constantly pull late nights at work. So why do they?
“I thought it made me seem like I was a slacker. At the time, I had to prove myself and I wanted to seem ambitious,” writes Cindy Krischer Goodman for Miami Herald.
“But after weeks of staying late for no reason, my new husband insisted I was being foolish. So, I quietly slipped out around 7pm, leaving my computer on to look like I might still be around.”
Working extra, unpaid hours is a scenario most of us would be familiar with. Often we do this to prepare for the next day, or to meet an important deadline, but then there’s the problematic form of overworking: doing so to be seen as a ‘hard worker’.
In an article for ABC Life, a Sydney lawyer named Zoe articulated that sometimes these issues can be industry specific.
“I know a lot of young graduates, particularly in law, who suffer from their managers’ perception that they’re only ‘hard workers’ if they dedicate hours upon hours of extra work, working up to 80-hour weeks,” she says.
But Hancock says in his experience this over-working epidemic is widespread. “It’s not industry specific, we see it everywhere. People feel they have to keep lifting up because someone else is constantly snapping at their heels.”
In my first job, I had little responsibility and very little work to do (much to my frustration). I would count down the seconds until I could go for my lunch break, but I wouldn’t take it until my boss did. I’d wait for him to leave, make sure he noticed I too was leaving and then I’d rush outside, quickly scoff down a sandwich and make sure I was back at my desk before he was. Why? Much like Krischer Goodman, I wanted to be seen as ambitious.
“The whole idea of not leaving before the boss leaves is sort of cultural. “Even though we know we need to be flexible and measure output, many leaders and workplace cultures value facetime,” says Hancock.
Drawing on an example from his previous employer, a large corporation, Hancock says there was a rumour that the CEO understood the importance of modelling good behaviour but her workload wouldn’t always allow for her to leave on time. Instead of visibly staying back, she’d walk out the door at 4pm and then walk in the back door straight afterwards and continue working in a new space.
This might be an extreme example, but it shows the importance of following through on what you said you’d do and setting the tone for those underneath you.
“Of course, there can be exceptions,” says Hancock. “But if you said you were going to do something, you need to be seen as doing it 80-90 per cent of the time. Visible leadership is critical.”
It’s hurting our careers
It’s not just junior staff who fall victim to this. When impressing the boss is seen as an important part of climbing the ladder, or receiving praise from a superior patches up a personal insecurity, it’s hard to break away from that hamster wheel.
This behaviour, however, could have the opposite desired effect.
In a popular BuzzFeed article from earlier this year, author Anne Helen Petersen wrote about ‘millennial burnout’ – the idea that young employees are prone to working themselves to the bone in an effort to appear as if we’re going above and beyond. We’re all aware of the negative effects of burnout – HRM has written about this before – but the fact that millennials have their own subsection of this epidemic is alarming.
Helen Petersen speaks of “errand paralysis” – the inability to complete seemingly simple tasks due to a looming sense of feeling overwhelmed – as one of the side effects of millennial burnout. In a workplace, this might amount to missed deadlines, unhappy clients or a backlog of administrative work.
Another way mirroring senior staff may be hurting employees is differing perceptions. For example, while employees might feel they’re coming across as committed when they stay back late, their manager (who has complete oversight of their workload), might see red flags about their time management skills. Or if an employee tried to match their boss’s manner in which they address or interact with other staff, they could be seen as “too big for their boots”.
Advice for employers
So what can HR do to ensure junior staff are only mirroring their superiors in the best way?
Encouraging staff to keep their bosses informed of their progress throughout the day can be a good way to ease some of the guilt employees may feel when knocking off for the day or slipping out to lunch during a flurry of busyness.
Keeping a diary might also be a great way for them to reflect on the work they’ve done in the last week and can act as a place for them to jot ideas/concerns down that they can address with their manager during scheduled meetings.
Hancock says it’s important to remember that young workers can experience a strong sense of missing out. Even if they aren’t professionally ready to take on a specific task, they should still be included.
“A great way to do that is by creating a space for them. This can be done by making the interaction on a project more active observation than simply shadowing, which allows the newer employee to safely ask questions. They can provide feedback and insights throughout, or even a mini report of observations with fresh eyes – whether they are younger, new to the particular team or to the organisation overall.”