Role Modelling

t Nelson Mandela is a role model for thousands of peoples around the world

t Nelson Mandela is a role model for thousands of peoples around the world

ROLE modeling, or the setting of an example through one’s actions, is a powerful method of shaping behavior. For better or worse, it is the major way of learning for children.

This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as vicarious or social learning: children learn by watching behaviors performed by someone else and then performing them later through practice.

Apprentices in construction trades and manufacturing jobs generally watch those who have mastered an operation before trying it themselves. An employee promoted to the role of manager might have little idea of how to proceed in the new role without having previously seen managers in action.

In addition, not only do learners observe the content and behaviors involved in the operations they are seeking to learn, but also they often adopt the style of those they have observed, or take another style that is suggested. In short, people learn a great deal about how to play a particular role by watching others play that role as either positive or negative models.

This point is of great importance in implementing transformational change. If significance change involves new roles and behaviors, it follows that such change will be more successfully carried out if living examples of the new ways are visible to those being asked to cooperate in the change.

Yet, most change programs are carried out with minimal attention to this point. Through persuasive communication a vision is drawn of the desired new behaviors, but that vision may only exhort people to behave in ways that they have never seen performed. Structural rearrangement may provide an environment more conducive to the development of new roles and responsibilities, but it does not and of itself make available the behavioral models and skills necessary to carry out these roles and responsibilities effectively.

Extrinsic rewards may make it more attractive for people to perform the behaviors to be contingently rewarded. Role modeling adds a critical dimension that is lacking in these other influence methods.

Role Modeling in Transformational Change

The challenge of using modeling in transformational change lies in finding role models who can actually model the new behaviors, yet who are appropriate enough to the old culture to be acceptable. Meeting this challenge requires a very delicate balance, for it is hard to get people to give up their identification with current role models and emulate a new model that seems disconfirming of the old. In essence, new role models need to be both acceptable to the old culture and different enough to generate interest in the new vision.

The Dynamics of Role Modeling

Role modeling operates on two levels. The first has to do with the learning of specific behaviors, such as driving a car or learning to swim. Children and young adults generally observe these skills for a long time before they practice them. Similarly, employees who regularly attend meetings observe the leadership of those meetings well before being asked to conduct a meeting themselves.

Thus, some learning occurs that is independent of overt practice or direct rewards. The implication is that skill development begins before it emerges in actual behavior. Such learning is also independent of trial-and-error learning in which people are thrust into a role and expected to perform.

The second level on which role modeling works has to do with the process of identification with someone whose values or way of being in the world is attractive. The attraction can be different kinds. Sometimes it is to the role model’s demonstration of a craft or skill that becomes a possible career choice. Other times, the attraction is to specific attributes of the role model, such as the way he or she accomplishes work, or the way he or she handles conflict. In addition, the attraction may be to a general lifestyle that represents a vision of a desirable way of life or a commitment to a mission.

The Impact of Multiple Realities on Role Modeling

To avoid simple imitation, it is useful to expose the learner to several role models with varying backgrounds, experiences, and personal styles. While observers may attend more to some role models than to others, they rarely adopt all the qualities of their preferred models.

Studies have shown the value of multiple role models in demonstrating the range of possibilities without demanding that everyone follow the same path. Multiple role models allow an observer the opportunity to choose parts of the behavioral patterns of different role models. If learners see only one way of being, it is much more difficult for them to develop their own creative synthesis of the various possibilities.

Using Role Modeling Effectively

Role modeling occurs as a function of the role model just being who he or she is. It is not about occasionally acting in certain way, and it does not require the exaggeration of any particular behavior. Role modeling is most likely to be effective if it is seen as natural behavior. Therefore, the more effective role models will be those who have a good sense of identity and high self-confidence.

Although the concept of role modeling is a simple one, role modeling itself is a complex, powerful phenomenon that is often misunderstood or unappreciated, Joan Lancourt cautions.

To some extent, this is due to the fact that most of the time people are not consciously aware of what they are role modeling. Anyone who is in a position of leadership acts as a role model whether or not they are conscious of doing so. They are constantly observed by those around them, who see and judge their behavior. The picture is further complicated by the fact that what an individual thinks is critical influencing behavior may not be seen that way by an observer.

Selection of appropriate role models at the beginning of a change effort is therefore extremely important. To be effective at role modeling, the role models need to act toward others like teachers and coaches, and they need to pay attention to what they evoke in others.

For an organization to gain the greatest possible from role modeling, attention should be paid to those who supervise new employees. In many instances, this does not happen. Yet studies of the early experiences of management trainees and entry-level professionals indicate that the quality of orientation constitutes a critical difference between those who had good learning experiences and those who did not.

Perhaps the most important organizational support of learning through role modeling is the frequency and duration of people’s opportunities to observe role models at close range. Making it possible for people to attend important meetings, even as observers, is very helpful in this regard. Watching one’s manager present a report on which one worked allows one to observe both one’s own manager and others. Increasing the number of people at meetings and the number of meetings that individuals may attend may seem cumbersome, but the inconvenience may be offset by the learning opportunity.

In conclusion, role modeling is a highly effective influence method. People are models of what they truly believe, not of what they preach. The leaders of change would do well to realize that role modeling is not, by itself, enough to sustain and improve the performance of what is learned.

Unless there is later reinforcement through practice opportunities and incentives, that which is learned will remain a limited skill. However, role modeling is a powerful shaper of behavior. Therefore, in the context of organizational transformation and resocialization, the development and deployment of role models capable of effectively modeling the new behaviors will help speed the transformation.

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