The Organizational Epidemic: Is Your Herd Immune?


Jack Zenger

August 1, 2016

In 1974, 80% of Japanese children were receiving the vaccine for whooping cough. As a result, there were only 393 cases of whopping cough and no deaths. In the following years the vaccine seemed less important. After all whooping cough wasn’t really that much of a threat. The immunization rates dropped until only 10% of Japanese children were vaccinated.

The result: In 1979, more than 13,000 people in Japan got whooping cough and 41 died. The reason for the outbreak was the lack of “herd immunity.” The success of mass immunization programs hinges on getting a high percentage of individuals inoculated. When a parent fails to immunize a child or you fail to get a flu shot, to some degree, you jeopardize the entire herd.

The concept of herd immunity applies to the leadership of organizations as well. Consider these two scenarios:

A. The organization sponsors 20 different programs and involves 25 people in each. (Think university catalogue and small classes.)

B. The organization sponsors a single and more powerful program and 500 managers participate out of 700 potential attendees.

Which will have the greatest impact? Yes, it is probably obvious that the later solution is best. Yet year after year we see organizations make the choice to send only a select few through a leadership program, or to let everyone pick the one thing they’d like to spend their development dollars on from a menu of options. Then they are surprised when the organization doesn’t change or improve. If organization’s focus is on only 20 people out of 500, there is minimal cultural impact and only the 20 individuals will benefit. You cannot save the herd if you train (immunize) only 4% of your team.

Among the many leadership lessons of the late Peter Drucker, he confirmed that to enact a meaningful change, an organization needs to reach a minimum of a third of all managers, and ideally more than two thirds, to succeed. Yes, there are budgets to consider. Different departments may have differing needs, and there is always a shortage of time. So how can you spread the immunity? One of the ways to make a significant impact is to prepare a greater field of managers, and then to immerse them more deeply into their subordinates’ professional development plans.

In the graph below you can see the results of our company’s study on the impact of manager support of development. It indicates that 74% of employees who had a very supportive manage felt they had improved over a given time period, compared to only 33% of those with an unsupportive manager.

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 8.18.35 PM

Prepared and supportive managers make for stronger and better executive leaders below. Bad habits, ineffective processes, gossip, laziness, lack of drive, dishonesty, and a culture that accepts mediocrity are only a few of the diseases that can effect an organization. But changing the behavior of a lucky few at the top of the organizational chart will do little to protect the rest of the herd. Every manager at every level can make a big difference in the inoculation and the protection of the herds they will lead.

Regardless of the program you choose (and some are clearly better than others), to achieve the results you are hoping for, be sure to enact your leadership development efforts consistently, apply them deeply, and measure them well.


This article was written by Jack Zenger from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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