The Secret to Employees Who Work Well? Look Up

leadership impact

Mark Zuckerberg will forever be remembered as the mover and shaker who changed how we connect.

But he's also had a sizeable impact for doing...nothing.

"Nothing" is a relative term. In fact what Mr. Zuckerberg did to make his most recent mark on his company was anything but idle laziness - he took two months off from work to be with his family following the birth of his baby, which as anyone who's been there knows is doing a lot more than nothing.

But "nothing" in this case refers to not working. And in this context "nothing" was perhaps everything because the Facebook CEO demonstrated to working fathers at his organization the use of a benefit by a person of influence - specifically a leader.

Leadership Impact and the Benefits of Doing...Nothing

Study after study has shown this is true: that behavior of all sorts, from benefits usage to productivity, starts from above. And the leadership effect isn't just about people at the very top.

Last year, a Horizons Workforce Consulting study of vacation time showed that employees were taking only a paltry 25% of their allotted vacation time. The reason? Their managers. HWC's study said that less than half of all managers took all their vacation and of those that did, a whopping two thirds worked while they were away.

"Managers are your company role models. What they do communicates the standard to their reports," says Horizons Workforce Consulting's Andrea Wicks Bowles, one of the authors of the study. But by not taking vacation themselves, these managers are effectively sandbagging your vacation policy.  "Some role models," says Andrea.

Such actions feed more than just individual behaviors, but perceived policy. Take men and time off. Male managers who don't take time off communicate (whether intentionally or not) that male managers shouldn't take time off. And that has substantial ripple effects in how men see their responsibilities, and not just in the U.S. The majority of both mothers and fathers in our Modern Family Index in the U.K. said that it was more acceptable for women to take time to care for families than it is for men. Over time, those self-perpetuating habits become harder to break. And the costs can be felt in employees who burn out or quit because they don't feel entitled to take the time they need.

Leadership Impact Flows Both Ways

And it expands beyond benefits usage. Behavior in all areas trickles down. A UC San Diego study illustrated this unequivocally, showing that reports often mirrored the behaviors of their supervisors. The bad news is those results flow both ways. "The direct reports of the worst-performing HL [high-level] managers were also below-average performers," wrote the team responsible for the study.

Thankfully, such studies also show that managers have substantial power for good, for both men and women. Leadership members who are seen leaving work at 4 to attend a child's soccer game or a parent/teacher conference communicate far more about work/life policies such as flex time than any employee manual ever could. That kind of role modeling flows downward not just to today's employees, but to the work/life philosophies of tomorrow's working mothers and fathers. And that makes such modeling and leadership impact among the most important job for managers.

In this regard, fathers - whose old-fashioned role as "provider" continues to bump up against the modern role as involved dad - may well prove to be the best test case. Back at Facebook, leaders not quite as high up the chain as Mark Zuckerberg are seeing the impact of their own decisions about flex time and fatherhood. "I probably meet with a new dad every month or two. And it seems like there's kind of a peer group now that is encouraging and supporting each other," Facebook VP Tom Stocky told NPR recently about his decision to take leave.

The clear message: if you want to understand why your work/life policies and programs either are or aren't having impact, the best thing to do... is look up.

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.