Have you ever worked for an inconsistent supervisor? You know the type. Some are known for routinely launching new initiatives after being entranced by an article they read on the plane. They pitch the new approach or idea to their team and insist on engagement only to have abandoned the idea by month’s end. And this pattern repeats itself over and over. Others are inconsistent in their mood and attitude at work. Some days they are helpful, open, and engaging while on other days they are distant, moody or even downright agitated. And then there are the leaders who make up the rules and procedures as they go. They may reward one employee handsomely for a contribution one week while overlooking an equally valuable contribution from someone else the next. They may react to mistakes differently depending on the guilty party. Finally, there are leaders who just don’t know who they are and what they stand for. They evoke values, principles and guidelines relevant to the situation and learning opportunity one week and then immediately behave in ways that are counter to those values and principles the next. Working for these types of leaders is often viewed as just an unfortunate workplace reality. You are expected to “suck it up” and work around them and many do just that, albeit with a little less motivation and energy, as the pattern of inconsistencies continue.
Other than being a source of tremendous annoyance, does leader inconsistency really cause harm? A growing body of research over the last 30 years has shown, time and again, that leader inconsistency can damage the morale, self-esteem, and productivity of the follower and even impact the overall success of an organization. The consistency rule, defined by psychologist G. S. Leventhal, is the tendency to maintain a consistent approach in decisions and behaviors across situations and persons. He noted that the consistency rule applies to situations where leaders define expectations and define standards for performance evaluations, and that “once such standards are established, a sudden or marked deviation from them will be perceived as a violation of fair procedure.” (Leventhal, 1980, p. 40). Prolific leadership researcher Dr. David De Cremer from Maastricht University in The Netherlands, has also examined the impact of leader inconsistency. In a trio of studies, he found that inconsistent leaders significantly influenced staff’s reactions more negatively than those leaders perceived as consistent. Followers of inconsistent leaders had more negative self-evaluations and they more frequently evaluated these leaders as procedurally unfair. They also expressed greater feelings of uncertainty about themselves in their interpersonal interactions. The potential impact on performance is considerable. If followers begin to doubt themselves and their abilities and even experience diminished self-esteem because of the unpredictability of their leader, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how this situation can fester. Eventually, followers leave, resign in place, or become malcontents. The price of inconsistent leadership can spell disaster to an organization’s culture.
So what do you need to do to ensure you are a consistent leader?
The most important activity you can engage in to ensure that you are a consistent leader is to begin with a serious examination of your beliefs, values, principles and leader self-identity. Many leaders go through their entire careers without ever committing to a period of serious self-reflection about who they are, what they stand for, and what they believe. In our practice, an examination of the self is a central component of effective leadership and a cornerstone of our connected leadership model. High potential leaders are routinely guided through the development of a personal Leader P.O.V. statement (a personal philosophy of leadership and who they are as leaders). The process of developing a Leader P.O.V. statement involves both testing and clarifying the leaders identity in a very deep and meaningful way. We have found that leaders who purposely reflect on their experiences, beliefs, and values associated with their personal leadership, and how these factors influence their leader behaviors, they actually become more aware and consistent in their leadership.
We include in our practice a yearlong leader journal that was developed with weekly topics to help guide the leader through the process of introspection. As a capstone experience for these programs, the leaders are asked to share the Leader P.O.V. statements they created over the several weeks of the program with other members of their leader development group. The opportunity to share and claim their values, beliefs, and identities as leaders is as powerful as the process of examination and clarification. Speaking it out loud, particularly to others, signals a integration into deeper levels of identity. And when these principles, values, and beliefs are deeply embedded, chances are that you will be a more consistent leader because you don’t want to violate what you have spent so much time and energy clarifying.
Everyone can begin a process of self-examination but it isn’t a quick process. For those wanting additional steps to ensuring more consistent leadership while they are self-evaluating, then the following short checklist might be a useful starting point:
1. Engage in some type of reflective practice. If you can’t journal about prior defining experiences, challenges, and characteristics of leader identity, then schedule time with a trusted peer to have a weekly conversation about your leadership. Generate a list of questions that you and your trusted partner will ask each other routinely and then hold each other accountable to a routine sharing session. Sample questions include: “What did I do this week in recognizing or rewarding my staff that may be viewed by others on the team as unfair or inconsistent?” “How did I handle a setback or a mistake made by one of my staff this week that may be inconsistent with how I have handled such situations in the past.” “How did I act in ways that may have been viewed by others as inconsistent with my stated principles and values and what did I do about this inconsistency?”
2. Measure twice, cut once. We have all heard this phrase in the context of carpentry. It is good stewardship to check your measurements before you implement the saw. Checking the measurements, or thoroughly considering the impact of a decision before implementing that decision can save problems later. If you have a tendency for “flavor of the month” initiatives, evaluate the sustainability of the idea before implementation. For example, ask “Is this the best idea for the time and the context? If not, what should garner my effort and attention (and the effort and attention of my team)?” “What should I (or my team) stop doing because it isn’t generating the intended results?” In addition, keep a log of the new ideas you present to your team and revisit this log routinely (at least every two months or so) and candidly evaluate if the initiative was successful or is being sustained.
3. Consider hiring an executive coach. Executive coaching has come a long way. Find one who structures their approach with evidence-based practices and a clear theoretical framework and ask them to help you with evaluating consistency.
4. Give your staff permission to point out inconsistencies. Invite your staff to share with you when they perceive your words or actions as being inconsistent. And more than permission, you need to ensure them protection for when they take this risk to share candidly with you. Don’t rebuke, reject, or otherwise punish the staff for their bravery–even if you may not agree totally with their view. Instead, thank them and encourage them to continue the behavior. Strong leaders accept this type of feedback regularly and, over time, the feedback you get will be better and more accurate as people grow to trust that you will not cut the limb they climb out on. Make the same offer to your peers and your boss. They have a different vantage point and may offer insights that your staff may not see. It isn’t weakness to ask your peers and supervisor to help you be the best leader you can be and to let them know that you want to be known as consistent along with other essential characteristics of effective leadership. You may find they will ask you to do the same as this type of conversation often inspires like behavior.
If you follow these steps–CONSISTENTLY–then you will also communicate a commitment to being a better leader to your staff. They will reward your effort to be better and while you are becoming better, you will find that they will be less impacted by those periodic inconsistencies that may show up as you begin your journey to being a more connected, and more consistent, leader.
© James P. Sartain, CODA Partners, Inc. and Connected Leadership. (2013). Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to James P. Sartain, CODA Partners, Inc., and referencing the Connected Leadership blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.