There is an old proverb that states, “he who thinks he leads but has no followers is only taking a walk.” For all of the books, articles, and seminars on the topic of leadership, one would believe that it requires some form of magic or unique charisma. The truth is that following others is a natural human characteristic. The problem is that the inherent programming to “follow” doesn’t include an equally inherent set of standards on “who” to follow.
Psychologists have devoted a great number of hours to understanding the human follow response. What is clear is that there is a natural tendency to use the behavior of others as a short-cut to decision making. Some of these experiments are as simple as having one person stand on the street and stare at the sky-in which the vast majority of passerby’s will mimic the behavior. In more advance studies, a person sits in a room that fills with smoke. When paired with “confederates” who don’t react, the majority of participants remain in the room until the environment becomes unbearable. Other experiments have people on the street following another person through an elaborate layout of roped stations, although none of them have any idea why they are following or what is to be the final destination.
This phenomenon is probably not new to anyone who travels through airports. On a regular basis when the time draws near for boarding, the movement of a single person towards the boarding area results in a herd-like movement of the passengers well before any announcement is made. Scientists don’t know the exact causes of this following program. It may be that as social creatures, we tend to find safety and comfort in the pack. It may be just a mental short-cut for efficiency sake—if others do it, it must be good for me. Regardless of the cause, the effect is universal. We are going to follow someone, even if that someone is walking in circles.
The follow effect can be used for advantage or ignored at danger of peril. In loss prevention, we often speak of the power of culture and how it can create an environment of good results or bad results—it all depends on the sub-culture we’ve built in a company or a location. Cultures are developed in the same manner as many other behaviors. We look to environment cues to determine the socially acceptable actions. In other words, we follow what others are doing.
A business that wishes to create an environment of integrity, good operations, and loss control does so by leading on these behaviors. This isn’t as simple as a company mandate, a mission statement or a rule book. We know that humans follow other human actions at a much higher rate than a set of written directions. Sure you read a rule book when you get your driver’s license, but the real lessons come from behind the wheel and watching others. To build a positive environment, we need to ensure that we have positive actions and behaviors. One of the reasons “good stores” continue to be “good” and “bad” continue to be “bad” is that each new team member enters the environment and learns habits and actions—good or bad—from the people already there. In other words—they just follow the group.
Changing behavior and ensuring beneficial actions is about leadership. Not leadership from some far-off place, but the kind that happens closest to the action. We don’t follow what we can’t see. That is why training, education, and ensuring the right actions (compliance) is a critical part of successful loss prevention. And there is a simple three step formula to follow:
1. Promote the intended vision with an actionable and measurable plan. We do X because we want Y and it ultimately helps us obtain Z.
2. Include on-going training for existing and especially new team members. We can’t assume that statement one (our vision and plan) is understood unless we train and educate on the details.
3. Measure the actions from time to time. Processes such as auditing, help measure the actions and outcomes. It is the final step to ensure that what we said (step one), how we demonstrated it (step two) is transferred to the actions we want.
The hard truth is every location has the potential to develop and execute their own culture. Team members at every level will look to follow the actions of others. Whether those actions are “good” or “bad” will only be evaluated by a team member under the most extreme situations. The introduction of integrity issues and the development of policy myth are things that happen to one person at a time. They are observed and passed on and without intervention, without a course correction, we can soon find that many of our team members are following each other right off a cliff…and because our company’s future is tethered to their decisions, we sometimes get dragged right along with them.
Ray Esposito, Sr. VP Strategic Development & Marketing at LP Innovations Inc