What do these two items above have in common? At first glance, not much, which is why I LOL’d when I saw a college student reading a nutrition textbook while eating a bag of Funyuns®. Sure, maybe the class was required, and he really wasn’t interested in learning how kale is better for him than the tasty snack. In fact, eating out of a vending machine is a right of passage for students everywhere, right?
But then, as usual, my amusement led me to think about how this image relates to my behavior, particularly as an instructor on leadership (point the finger and sadly, it eventually comes back to us). When do I appear inconsistent?
This is something we teach in our leadership classes – the idea that our words and actions must match. If they don’t match, people will notice your actions first. If a leader is known for leading with his badge and writing people up for uniform violations, ... and then is regularly seen doing PT out of the required uniform, what message is he sending? He’s saying, “the rules apply to you but not to me.” It’s tough to maintain any credibility when words and actions are inconsistent.
This all may seem quite obvious this walk the talk advice and easy to forgive because we can all be inconsistent right? Well, not quite. In fact, inconsistency has far-reaching consequences on work teams. Many leaders fall into the trap of inconsistency, and there are three scientific factors behind the damage of inconsistent leadership and management, so there’s no getting around it. The American Management Association discusses the impact of inconsistent management in this article. Basically, the premise is this:
First, over time, repetitive inconsistency can lead to learned helplessness. Basically, the idea is that employees who once considered themselves competent and good at their jobs find themselves living in a state of confusion and fear due to their leader’s inconsistent reinforcement.Second, we process negative information and feedback more intensely and thoroughly than we do positive information. The power of a setback to increase frustration and annoyance is over three times as strong as the power of progress to decrease frustration and annoyance. In a nutshell, negativity causes significantly more impact and more soul-sucking than positive ones. In a study by Roy Baumeister, good stuff can make up for lousy stuff but only in a ratio of five to one—that being five good things over one bad thing. A manager’s inconsistency can stick like superglue to the brains of their employees. Third, there is a phenomenon called Emotional Contagion that deals specifically with the projection of attitudes and feelings, and it’s straightforward: if you smile and are positive around people, they will feel good and carry that positivity to the next place they go. This ripple effect can have the same but opposite effect with negativity. Sigal Barsade, a professor at Wharton Business School, observed that “people are walking mood conductors, continuously influencing the moods and subsequent behaviors of others.
So what can you do? Well, for starters, put down the Funyuns and self-reflect on your own areas of inconsistency and more importantly your mood, Are you having a consistently positive effect on others? Are you consistent in your leadership practices? Do you treat everyone the same? Chances are you’ll find room for improvement; we are all, in fact, human. But we can train our minds and keep our intentions, words, and behaviors as consistent as possible. And as this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds me, make sure no one can say to you, “your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.”