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Social Copying: The art of workplace behavioural change

We’re exploring the importance of social copying in the workplace as a driver for positive company culture change. Social copying has far-reaching consequences for building positive behaviours at work, from empathetic leadership to Health & Safety measures.

When used effectively across departments and organisations this can have a strong impact on the long-term success of a business. What’s more, businesses can see results in the relative short-term, busting the myth that cultural change at work can only ever happen over a longer timescale.

What is social copying?

Social copying, or the phenomenon of social mimicry happens when we subconsciously find ourselves mirroring other people’s behaviour. This can present as ‘negative’ behaviours such as dropping litter at a music festival or positive behaviours such as following safety procedures at work when other team members do so.

Why do we copy others?

We are herd animals by nature. We have a deep psychological drive to fit in and there’s plenty of research and evidence to back up this theory.

Social copying is part of our nature and acts as the corner stone of effective behavioural and cultural change programmes. Social copying takes place in the community, social groups and the workplace to name a few.

But this desire to fit in is far more complex than a desire to be the same as everyone else.

social copying example

People who act like me

When we perceive a group of people as 'similar to us' we are more likely to copy them. It is also important that this group resonates with our values.

We copy people we trust, and the closer we feel to people the more we begin to trust them.

What’s more, the people we are most likely to copy in a group are those we see as influential, the ringleaders, people in positions of power or that have the most social influence in that setting.

The importance of belief in social copying

Although people may start to copy behaviour on a subconscious level, if they don’t believe in the change this process will be slower and people may not continue these changes in the longer term.

So it’s important you introduce a ‘value’ to the behaviour you are hoping to introduce. Does this help them on an individual level, help others or the environment for example? Change for the sake of change is unlikely to give people a compelling enough reason to adapt their behaviours.

Successful social copying programmes in society

Every time social behaviour in society has evolved successfully it’s been because social copying techniques have been used to full effect.

For example, phasing out the practice of not wearing seat belts or drink driving. These habits became socially unacceptable over time due to techniques which we’ll discuss shortly. Now, few people get behind the wheel and forget (or actively choose) not to wear a seat belt or drive under the influence.

Why do people copy ‘negative’ behaviour

People will often find reasons to justify a behaviour they may not initially agree with and subsequently adapt their behaviour to avoid cognitive dissonance.

In other words, they effectively change their minds on how they feel about a behaviour and will then carry out that new behaviour until something changes their minds back again.

There are many examples throughout history and recent times of this, some more extreme than others (smoking in public, drink driving and genocide being 3 examples).

similar clocks to represent social copying

Social copying in the workplace

How the workplace mirrors wider society. In organisational psychology, much of the research is based on social and family psychology.

It has long been acknowledged that the workplace works as a subset of society as a whole. This means most models based on broader society also work well for workplace settings too.

You can predict and change behaviour in a social setting but to do so effectively you need to influence individual behaviour too.

The role of influential people in positive change

When influential people change their behaviour, people are more likely to copy them, because they look up to them and want to emulate their positive behaviour. They are also more likely to pay attention to these influential people on a day-to-day basis compared to their usual contemporaries.

These influential people do not have to be leaders when it comes to the workplace. This may be key people at a department level or even people in no position of power, but to whom others look up.

This means, if you want to drive positive change in a workplace then identifying a handful of influential people is a key part of the overall picture. These people can drive positive or negative change.

As a positive example, if influential members of a team greet new starters, make time for people and encourage open conversations about mental health in the workplace people will copy this. This can build motivation, performance and psychological safety.

Leadership Development from Designed4Success

Social copying in the workplace: Company Culture and Wellbeing ‘negative’ behaviour example

For example, if influential people have unhealthy working practices such as skipping lunch or working very long hours other people are likely to copy them, particularly if those people are being praised for high performance. However, over the long term this can lead to a burnt-out team, reducing overall productivity and increasing absenteeism and employee turnover.

In business there is often a vicious cycle where people work far over their contracted hours. These people risk burnout but often get promoted.

This makes them influential, and others see the praise they receive from leadership. As a result, this can encourage a culture of staying late, employees will compete, and this gets worse.

Team performance often drops as a result, with those working long hours struggling to complete tasks at a high-quality level or failing to respond or interact effectively with other members of the team.

Employees who feel overworked or undervalued because of this culture are more likely to leave causing a retention problem as well as a risk of reputational damage through word of mouth that prevents the attraction of good talent moving forward.

neat books but different colours to represent diversity within social copying

Successful social copying programmes at work: Onboarding example

One way to ensure good behaviours stay in place is to integrate new people into the culture from the get-go. Introduce your new employees to ‘good’ practices through effective onboarding.

Ideally this should happen face-to-face rather than relying on technology to teach them or leaving them to learn by observing others.

If they are taught these good practices, they need to see it play out in real time too. For example, saying ‘our culture is to eat lunch away from our desks’ only works if people see other people doing this. There’s no use saying this when the newly promoted member of staff eats at their desk every day.

Successful social copying programmes at work: Company culture example

Let’s say you want to create a company culture of respect. This can seem difficult and vague to start with.

But using atomic behaviour, with the attributable, visible and binary factors, this change in culture can be moulded more easily than it first appears.

Respect can be boiled down to smaller key behaviours to start the ball rolling. For example:

  • Turning up to meetings on time

  • Never finish the meeting on the hour so people always get a break between meetings.

Or for example, if you want to encourage a warmer company culture you can implement actions such as saying hello to new members of the team. This can even spread outside the workplace with employees greeting others in the local community or smiling as they greet people on the school run.

You only need 2 to 3 behaviours to underpin the culture and to shift the social norm.

You don’t need a long period of time to change things for the better even in large companies, changing things at a department level can prove to be powerful. Especially in bigger work structures where people are more likely to be influenced by their immediate team and managers.

How to change a toxic work culture over a shorter period of time

It's a myth that toxic culture can only be changed in the long term.

This is often the case because it’s tackled without the right steps and without the right level of attention from leadership or at department level.

There are ways to make changes in the relative short term, especially if you focus on one element of your culture that you want to change.

First identify the good traits you want to see. This needs to be specific and not just a ‘less toxic’ culture. For example:

  • Safety

  • Openness

  • Inclusivity

  • Creativity

  • Trust

You can then set out a plan using the ‘3 factors’ of social copying we’ll discuss shortly.

Once you’ve decided what you want to change and why, make sure you get buy-in from the people who are influential to your staff, to help make the change a success.

Establish the ‘why’ behind why behavioural change is necessary

There needs to be a clear message for leadership and teams on the ‘why’ behind the planned culture change.

For example, if inspiring trust in teams is important what are the suspected impacts? From wellbeing through to staff retention, improved performance and sales effectiveness. The more tangible these outcomes the better.

It helps to show evidence from other companies that have seen tangible results too such as case studies to help convince influential people within your business.

Make sure those reasons resonate on an individual level too. For example, ‘more profits’ is unlikely to matter to warehouse operatives unless they are also seeing a bonus in their payslips.

Or if safety is a concern focus on the message of reduced stress and lower risk of an accident personally to your team rather than focusing on something less important to them such as ‘looking good to new customers.’

7 frogs acting the same to represent social conformity

The first steps of change – Start with small behavioural changes

Once you’ve created the right messaging look at small sets of behaviour to seed and spread.

If you try something radical it is far less likely people will comply.

And the beauty of identifying small sets of behaviour is you can then measure and influence these using metrics.

Behaviour needs to conform to a certain set of rules to work:

Attributable to an individual – ‘Safety’ in itself is not a behaviour... you need to change the ‘people behaviour’ associated with safety such as wearing PPE correctly each time.

The action needs to be visible - The change is not how people think, although this helps. For example, wearing protective gear from point X in a factory, clearly marked.

The behaviour must be binary ‘do or don’t’ without any in-between, aka you can’t half do the behaviour. You can’t half-wear headphones or half park a car between the lines.

Behavioural change through social contagion

Then you need to spread the social copying behaviour throughout the organisation with a clear communication plan.

It’s important you measure the results and maintain the momentum or people will become disengaged. What’s more a poor attempt at changed behaviour can have unintended consequences such as breaking trust or causing apathy about future change initiatives.

Note that just as good behaviours can spread in the short time, toxic culture can also form quickly within a workplace, especially during times of intense change such as a new senior leader, a cost-of-living crisis or during a period of high employee turnover.

This is where the three factors come in which we mentioned earlier.

Social Copying: The 3 factors for planned behaviour

The 3 factors for planned behaviour

Take littering for example.

If you ask most people “What is your individual view on littering?” then their behavioural belief will usually be that it’s bad.

Whereas newer planned behaviours take more work, such as not smoking indoors when it was introduced in 2007. These beliefs may be harder to mould because they are not imprinted from an early age.

2. Normative belief

People look to others to decide how to behave.

People will ask themselves ‘what do I see everyone else doing?’

For example, if people usually don’t drop litter normally but they go to a music festival and everyone else is dropping litter they are far more likely to do so too.

When your individual view conflicts with the normative belief then cognitive dissonance happens.

Usually, people will let the normative belief override their own personal belief especially if there is no immediate personal consequence to them, like a fine for example.

This is especially true if they believe their reputation is under threat from those influential people they look up to, by NOT engaging in the poor behaviour.

They will only fight against this normative belief if they hold very strong personal views that they are willing to fight for.

And, of course, some people may be more naturally pliable than others when it comes to social pressure or norms.

3. Control beliefs

Control beliefs are achieved through positive and negative consequences to the individual.

For example:

  • Through a positive reward mechanism

  • Negative consequences such as punishments

These positively reinforce ‘good’ behaviour or deter against ‘poor’ behaviour.

For example, the law against littering in Singapore which has a zero-tolerance approach.

Or music festivals that reward people for bringing cups back in return for free drinks. This is also done in a way to encourage younger people to get involved too who are then rewarded with free soft drinks.

Clear messaging is very important to make control beliefs successful. You need this messaging to influence and create a shift in individual beliefs.

To do this the messaging needs to resonate with them by highlighting the social benefits of compliance, any impact to their health, the planet, their social standing and make it matter to them personally.

animals to represent different age groups in social copying

The role of diversity in social conformity

Depending on the diversity of the group this may be more difficult to achieve and therefore you may need influential people from those different groups too.

For example, if all the influential people carrying out the behaviour are from one culture the social copying may not take hold in another group. Equally if everyone over the age of 40 starts a new behaviour you may need influential people in the younger group or visa versa. You may also need to explore social copying within a departmental level first especially in a larger organisation.

Therefore, identifying and convincing these influential people is one priority. Next you need them to audibly challenge normative belief. Then finally add in the positive or negative consequences of compliance.

There needs to be change in behaviour in what is seen as socially acceptable.

Making it easy

The easier it is to comply the more likely it is that people will do so.

For example, litter prevention works best when there are more bins available.

Interactive bins or colourful bins can also help children to take part in this positive behaviour. This can encourage and shift behaviour at an early age and this embeds at a cultural level.

Then, over time fewer negative measures are needed such as litter wardens because the behaviour change becomes second nature to most people in that society.

Adapting to workplaces in the modern day

Hybrid working and social disconnection

Another factor in the modern world is hybrid working. Whilst this has brought many benefits to employees and businesses alike it is creating social disconnection in other ways.

With people working remotely and coming into offices less frequently, there are fewer opportunities for people to observe and copy each other. This causes organisations a lot of concern in relation to how they sustain company culture.

Therefore, you need to explore company culture from a different angle if your team are working in a hybrid model especially when you introduce multiple sites or time differences.

Utilising social copying for behavioural change in your organisation

We’ll be exploring more workplace and societal case studies later, but if you want to explore more about social copying, body language and culture change get in touch with our team.

Want to create positive culture change?

We're actively working with businesses to successfully influence company culture. If you'd like to explore this further reach out to your team.

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