Jayashantha Jayawardhana finds that inconsistent leaders are prone to disrupt their teams

Opening one of her witty commentaries on corporate leadership headlined ‘Why we prefer nasty bosses to be horrible all the time,’ the UK Financial Times’ management columnist Lucy Kellaway narrates one of her excruciating personal experiences with a boss whose wild mood swings left her completely befuddled.

Even as she admits to having learnt much from her boss, his unpredictable and inconsistent behaviour made it extremely difficult for Kellaway to trust him. This in turn left her sceptical about both his criticism and praise – even if it was sincere.

When a leader is unpredictable, it leaves his followers in an awkward state of mind – one in which they find themselves constantly wondering if what they believe to be right may turn out to be wrong or vice versa. This results in anxiety and makes people doubt their ability to come up with new ideas or solutions for the benefit of the company they’re employed by.

self-contradiction Inconsistency inherently involves an element of self-contradiction. For example, you rebuke a subordinate for his tardiness; and a few days later when you catch him repeating it, you choose to tease him about it instead of the sharper rebuke he may be anticipating. And the next time around, you ignore his late arrival at the office, whereas you yell at him on a subsequent occasion.

Your inconsistent behaviour will result in confusion, leaving him unsure whether his tardiness is acceptable on some occasions while on others it isn’t, or if the problem lies with your mood swings rather than his lack of punctuality.

So instead of motivating him to develop good habits and arrive at the office on time, your inability to maintain a consistent line of discipline in the workplace has prevented him from correcting himself. Instead, it has contributed towards reinforcing his irresponsible behaviour at the expense of his employer.

Instead of changing your attitude with each late arrival therefore, you should have maintained your original position on future tardiness, which may have triggered more responsible behaviour from him.

TRUST-BUILDING But there’s an interesting twist to the whole affair: even if you’d been consistent in your responses to his repeated tardiness, it is possible that despite many rebukes he continues to show up late for work.

As the famous leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith remarked, it’s impossible for even the world’s best behavioural coach to change someone’s behaviour unless the individual is willing to change and improve himself.

However, inconsistency clearly doesn’t build trust. Today’s workplace is rife with inconsistencies up the hierarchy; and like conscience is eclipsed by passion, consistency is obscured by creativity and adaptability. Nevertheless, passion without conscience is as much a troubling organisational phenomenon as creativity and adaptability is without consistency.

The lack of consistency is a serious problem that is faced by organisations – yes, even those that brag about consistency being part of their corporate values. For the record, having consistency as a corporate value doesn’t guarantee that it is internalised and practised by the entire workforce. There’s much more to consistency than public relations and marketing.

DECISION-MAKING To be consistent does not mean you should refuse to adapt to change or stubbornly hang on to the status quo. You should be able to make intelligent decisions, having carefully considered the relevant facts, and continue with the decided course of action for a reasonable length of time without changing tactics or direction for every trivial reason.

Consistency does in fact have serious strategic implications in addition to behavioural undertones. It’s likely that in most cases they feed off each other… for better and worse.

As Kellaway observes in her column, maybe consistency and predictability are boring and unglamorous in a world that reveres creativity and disruption. But without consistency and predictability, there won’t be trust; and without trust, an organisation will cease to grow.