Super-open Leaders Help Create Open Team Culture

A leader’s behavior is not imitated by their team 100%:ly. This means that if you are leading a team, whose culture is currently not very open, and you demonstrate open behavior, the team’s culture will become “a bit more open”, but not as open as your example.

My experience behind the above hypothesis: At Lifix Systems, the founders Anton and Björn established the team from scratch after the seed funding. I had started as a board member and joined the team as a CTO, while the team was being built. Being open by nature, I would naturally inform the team about personal details such as the exact temperature and symptoms related to my a sick-leave or reasons for my child-care absence. The team’s culture was very open, too. Several years later, one team member pointed out in a 1-1 discussion that I don’t have to put so much personal details to messages about my absence. I responded smilingly that I don’t mind and I think it’s good for everyone to know, what my physical state is, just in case they’d need to call me. He said it felt a bit awkward but he understands my view as well.

My first impression after that conversation was: My over-openness was an important factor enabling an open team culture. Today, I keep wondering, how much of an effect did that have and what were the other factors. Two such factors are timing and team age.

Timing and team age have an effect. After the above experience, I joined another company to lead a team that already had existed for years. I continued being myself and communicating super-openly. I think a positive change happened in the team and also in another team working closely with us. However, the change took a lot longer time and openness didn’t become as thoroughly part of the culture. Also, during almost five years in the company, some of the team members didn’t change their behavior to a more open model at all. Again, several factors lie behind this sample experience.

What is the effect of the leaders’ behavior on team culture?

A pessimist would announce a Murphy’s law applied to the context of behavioral contagion:

Your behavior you would like to be copied by your team is copied to a lesser degree than your behavior you wouldn’t like to be copied.

Parents are accustomed to a similar behavioral pattern with their children. There are numerous hilarious examples in movies of a parent misbehaving and a child immediately copying that behavior.


From one side, the applied Murphy’s law is true, because the leader’s behavior is also unconsciously monitored by the team members for possible examples of behavior that instinctively feels inappropriate, but sometimes feels tempting.

If misbehavior by management is perceived, a team member can more securely behave similarly, because the leader also did so.

An interesting article “Blame the shepherd not the sheep” by Bauman, Ong and Tost in the Proceedings of the Academy of Management seems to draw similar conclusions that are related to the role of management in an organization.

The concept of behavioral contagism is also related to Nick Peeling’s comment in his book “Brilliant Manager“, where Nick points out something along the lines: In order to get rid of accusing or over-careful culture, the manager has to appraise failure, to encourage people to fail and learn from failures.

Who are the leaders, anyway?

On the other hand, the above statements put the team members into the role of sheep and the manager into the role of a shepherd, which isn’t necessarily the case in modern organizations, where everyone can – and occasionally also should, or is expected to – be a leader. As Mårten Mickos writes in the Shool of Herring introduction:

“A modern organization is like a school of fish, operating at great precision through subtle coordination of vast numbers of essentially equal members. The organization is led from the front, center, back and sides. A common vision and common values keep the group together. The group is powerful, effective and protected. Everyone has a voice. All are needed; no one is irreplaceable.”

So, everyone in the organization affects the culture. Everyone can help build a great culture. Without everyone’s participation, no single leader can change the culture.


Does a leader have to exaggerate in order to reach a desired effect? Maybe sometimes, because different individuals will have different level of conscious or unconscious attenuation when copying your behavior. However, I think that

Repetitive amplifying of desired behavior with recognition as well as attenuation of  misbehavior with appropriate visible actions are more important than exaggeration of your own behavior.

Common excuses for not taking action on bad behavior are listed in this article at HigherEdJobs.

In the case of openness: Don’t think too much about what you can share. Be super-open, and your team will also be at least open. You won’t be able to predict, how the information you shared can be helpful to different individuals in your organization, so information is better shared than hidden. This is related to my earlier post on trust.

If you want to be a true leader, remember these:

  • Without everyone’s participation, no single leader can change the culture.
  • Be a good example and act according to the common values in your organization.
  • Encourage and recognize good behavior in your colleagues.
  • Enjoy and empower your colleagues to behave like a leader, too.
  • In modern organizations, everyone can be a leader.

What kind of experience do you have on behavioral contagion or observational learning at work? Please share your comments. Sharing is caring.

Stakeholders related to this post: team members, managers, leaders, the entire organization



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