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The Value of Role Models

‘You can’t be what you can’t see’.

An often-used phrase that expresses the idea that to achieve we need to be able to see others doing it first or at least see similar behaviour around us. Most importantly, it also suggests what we see should be someone like ourselves. In the UK we have just seen our young England women’s national football team win the Euro 2022 competition. A wonderful ‘see’ for girls and young women in terms of sporting excellence, hard work, dedication and teamworking, in a sport traditionally dominated by male teams.

Driving forward improvements in diversity and inclusion and equality of opportunity for achievement in the workplace has often been linked to role modelling. Not being able to see differences in say gender, sexuality or race in senior roles may have a dispiriting effect on aspirations and expectations about one’s own potential progression in an organisation. Role models are therefore often cited as important in improving equality at work and can be a catalyst for culture change.

What is a role model?

A role model is defined as “a person who someone admires and whose behaviour they try to copy” (a). The premise that seeing behaviour being modelled in others has a positive effect on us has been used extensively in both educational and occupational settings such as in supporting positive behaviour change in minority or stigmatised communities or disadvantaged children or youth. It is particularly relevant where we want to encourage positive behaviour change or to motivate belief in what is achievable. (I wonder whether role modelling works in both directions? Is it possible that inappropriate behaviour is copied when we admire those who are not good role models? Something perhaps for another blog!)

How does role modelling work?

A useful psychological explanation of why role modelling can be effective is the motivational

theory of role modelling developed by Morgenroth et al. in 2015 (b). This theory proposes that quite

a complex process goes on between the ‘role aspirant’ (person who aspires to the behaviour) and

the development of their perception of the role model. This involves recognising complementarity

of goals that they share as well as seeing goals as both attainable and desirable. Therefore, role

models are powerful because they give us a sense of what is attainable and achievable, and therefore

an insight into our own potential.

So what does it mean for workplace achievement?

I suggest that role modelling should be seen as a valuable tool for change in the workplace as well as

more widely in society. It helps us not just to model our own behaviour on those of others but,

and perhaps more importantly, to see evidence that success is possible in terms of the attainment of

goals and aspirations. From an organisational perspective role modelling sounds relatively simple

(and inexpensive) to provide and helps bring culture change around diversity and inclusion.

But for role modelling to be effective, it of course requires positive actions on the part of

organisations. It needs diversity of thinking at senior leadership level at times of recruitment and

promotion of talent coupled with overt encouragement to those who do succeed to share those

experiences. Those who succeed should recognise how much they provide exemplars to others who

follow them. Mentoring can be a simple and effective way for leaders to provide good role models

and allow aspirants to have a safe environment to discuss both how to attain their goals as well as

how to deal with barriers they encounter.

Starting from the cradle

But perhaps role modelling should start much earlier if it has such an effect on our goals and aspirations. I believe we should be providing good role models to children from the get-go. I recently spent time with the two granddaughters of a good friend of mine. Sophia and Charlotte introduced me to the book Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (c). This is one of a series of books for girls that provide short readable stories about real life female achievers, from athletes, artists, and politicians to engineers, sailors and lawyers. Included in here is Michelle Obama, lawyer and first black First Lady in the White House. As she says her parents taught her “if it can be done, you can do it”. Inspiring all young people, but particularly those experiencing disadvantages, is important and all of us are responsible for providing role models to others, particularly those who will succeed us.


a) Cambridge Dictionary
b) Morgenroth, T., Ryan, M.K., & Peters K., (2015) The Motivational Theory of Role Modeling: How Role Models
Influence Role Aspirants’ Goals. Review of General Psychology, 19, 4, 465-483.
c) Good Night Stores for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo 2016 by Rebel Girls Inc.


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