How many role models does it take?


As I mentioned in my previous post, I am really digging in to “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, and it seems there are fantastic, fascinating, thought-provoking pieces riddled throughout the whole work.  Of course, I expected nothing less after reading “Blink!” and having my mind expanded in so many directions, and so many ideas that presented themselves, while reading that book as well.

Something that I found quite interesting is a reference to a study by Sociologist Jonathan Crane.  The study was so interesting that I was compelled to research it further myself.  It appears to be a study published in 1991 in The American Journal of Sociology.  The premise behind the study is a theory that neighborhood’s have a direct effect on the social problems associated with the neighborhood, and that  “As neighborhood quality decreases, there should be a sharp increase in the probability that an individual will develop a social problem.”  Most of us would agree that this seems plausible, and based on the analysis of the data, it seems to be supported.  According to the study, Crane analyzed the effect of the number of role models in a community on adolescent child-birth and school drop-out rates.  According to Gladwell, Crane defined role-models using the Census Bureau definition of “high status” members, including teachers, professionals, managers, etc. (I have yet to find anything that substantiates any definition of any positions as “high status” by the Census Bureau, although it is possible that at the time of the study this categorization was being used).  The study found that if a neighborhood contained between 40% and 5% of “high-status” workers, the rates for school drop-outs and pregnancy rates remained essentially the same.  When that rate dropped below 5%, the statistics exploded upward!  In a specific example given in “The Tipping Point”, when the rate dropped just 2.2% from 5.6% to 3.4%, the rates of pregnancy and drop-out either more than, or almost did, double.

These are powerful figures, and it made me think where else this kind of information could be useful.  I have to ask, would it be applicable anywhere else, and how?  My initial reaction is that it absolutely is, and the first place that comes to mind would be in companies.  Think of your own company; chances are that you and your co-workers have formed a type of community.  You have your own language, your own culture, and whether we like to admit it or not, there are almost certainly different classes.  No matter how “flat” you attempt to make an organization there will always be a certain amount of hierarchy; someone is in charge somewhere, and in many cases depending on the size of the organization, there are many someones in charge throughout.  Also in most organizations there are those positions, or perhaps just certain people, who are seen as having a “higher status” than others and they are many times viewed as being a role model to others in the organization.  Even if an organization is truly run in an equal and flat manner, there will tend to be people who take on this “high status” role in one form or another, and this is where I believe more study could be done, and where this study could be very applicable.

Ask yourself, “Do I have the right number of high-status people, in the right places?”  Also ask yourself, “Looking at my front-line employee group, do I have enough high-status members in that group to influence them in a positive manner, or do I move my high-status members to other areas as soon as they are identified?”  I would suggest that if we were to conduct the same type of study as Jonathan Crane did, but on large organizations, we would find many of these same facts to be present.  I hypothesize that particular positions and/or specific people who are viewed as the “high-status” workers have a direct effect on the success of other workers within a company, a business-unit, a division, or a team.  That is to say that having a key percentage of the overall workers falling in to this “high-status” category could potentially increase performance exponentially within the related group.  Can you imagine for a moment the implications?  This means that by simply creating, defining, developing, and implementing a specific position that is viewed as being in this “high-status” category, you could potentially increase your chances for success and decrease the chances for failure.  This would be applicable, and could have an impact, with essentially any type or level of worker.

This may even be a reason that some smaller organizations are successful while others are not.  Perhaps they have met the correct percentage of workers that fall into this “role-model”, “high-status” category and thus have increased the performance of the organization overall.  While in smaller organizations, say 1000 employees or less, the effect would be assumed to be much less, it could still be an important factor to drive the success of the business.

I think it is clearly a possibility that this concept could be real, and that it could definitely change the way that we think about business today.  Eventually, perhaps I will be able to post my own empirical data to support my hypothesis; until then, I think it is certainly worth putting the idea out there as food for thought.  As always, please feel free to leave comments, insights, perspectives, or critiques!

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