The surprising power of Mirroring


I tend not to quote the Bible when advising Risk and Compliance Officers. But I’ll make an exception for The Golden Rule:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” 

In simple terms, it reflects the fact that we react to the way in which we are treated by other people. If someone is aggressive towards us, then we’re likely to respond in kind. 

I call this Mirroring. 

If I’m in a customer service situation and the person on the other side of the desk is rude, then I’ll respond in kind. It also works the other way.  If I’m tired and angry and the person I’m dealing with is charming, helpful and genuine, then I’ll shift my mood to mirror theirs.   

Companies that are good at customer service, have this baked into their DNA.

I’ve been lucky enough to stay in a number of Mandarin Oriental hotels. They are exceptional at reading their customers and creating an incredible experience. 

I’ve arrived jet-lagged at their hotel in Tokyo and they’ve understood that I want to get to my room as quickly as possible, so they make that happen.

In Singapore, I’d foolishly decided to walk back from the office in the sweltering heat and the restaurant staff brought me cold towels and, most impressively, a beer. “We thought you might need this, so have this on us”, the Manager said. From then on, it didn’t matter how good or bad the food was. For the record it was excellent and I’m not just saying that because of the free beer.  

This isn’t about 5 Star service.  We’ve all had customer experiences in “cheap and cheerful” places that blew our minds. Equally, we’ve all had “high end” experiences we’d rather forget where our natural tendency is to fire social media missiles.

Yet even companies that are super-attuned to what customer’s want, seem to forget this when it comes to employees.  Economically this makes sense; one pays you money, the other is paid by you. But practically, it’s a bad call. Legally, if I employ someone, I have the right to require them to comply with my rules. This can make perfect sense: restaurants should have the right to impose health and safety standards on their employees and nuclear power stations should have the right to control what the people working in the reactor do.

No-one can argue with the basic principle of being asked to work particular hours or carry an office security pass. Very often, though, the employer oversteps the mark.  In extremis, this manifests itself as Harvey Weinstein type behaviour. But more commonly, employers implicitly presume that employees can just be told what to do. 

That approach can work in situations when the thing employees are being asked to do is binary and verifiable. You can tell someone to drive within a speed limit and verify whether they’re doing it.

But in The Knowledge Economy, many of the things companies need their employees to do, are difficult to codify and require judgement and nuance. You can’t tell someone to “be ethical” and assume they’ll make the right decision if you don’t give them room to make their own determination about what they should do in a given situation.

More often than not, “Compliance” (what we want people to do) requires a degree of engagement and has a qualitative element. As the saying goes

“You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”.

I’ve lost count of the number of people that have declared success by dint of getting people to fill in a survey or turn up to a meeting. Both of those tasks can be achieved in a manner that technically ticks the box and respects the letter of the law but fails to engage with the spirit of the law.

With apologies to HR, if we want employees to do the right thing, then we need to stop treating them like Resources and more like Humans. It’s also a valuable lesson to people in the other functions that seek to control human behaviour.  I’m looking at you Audit, Compliance and Risk to name but a few.

If we want people to behave in a certain way, then we need to think about things from their perspective. If we treat them like they’re small children and control their every move, then we shouldn’t be surprised when they behave like small children. If we create a process that implicitly (or explicitly) patronises the target audience, presumes it is up to no good, wastes its time or makes it do things that only serve to indemnify the employer should it come to legal action against that same employee, then we’ll sow what we’ve reaped.

The irony here is that the less we seek to control, the more people will respect it when we do. Intuitively we all know that there are limits and lines to be protected.

But if organisations constantly cry wolf, it loses its impact.

If you’re trying to get people to behave in a certain way, then understand that they will have a view on what you’re trying to do and how you’re trying to do it. And know that they’ll respond in kind.

All of which means that if you’re in the business of getting employees (or anyone else) to behave in a certain way, then you need to think about how you do it. Sometimes you can use your authority and that really is the best way to achieve what you want. But often it isn’t.  

Mirroring matters. We reflect the way we’re treated by others in the way we respond to them.  If the response you need is primeval, then perhaps exploiting status as an employer over an employee, makes sense. But if you need a thoughtful response, then take a good look in the mirror before you try to influence others. 

1 thought on “The surprising power of Mirroring

  1. Really good article. We spend an inordinate amount of time focused on procedure and process, and far less about mapping the human behaviour within. I am a big believer in the promotion of core human virtues such as empathy and compassion in all walks of life, and no more so in the company context.

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