In some ways, consistency is the enemy of good leadership. I often hear supervisors tell me, “In that supervisor training class I took last year, they told me the most important thing a supervisor can do is to be consistent. So, I treat everyone the same.” If that were true, that good leadership meant treating everyone the same, you wouldn’t need leaders at all. We could just replace them with computers. Certainly, we should try to be “consistently” fair and competent and avoid playing favorites and such. That is what most employees probably mean when they ask their leaders to be consistent. But, consistency is not the same thing as fairness. People are different. They have different needs. Situations demand different approaches. Even Blanchard’s Situational Leadership acknowledges that leaders need to alter their approach according to the level of experience and motivation of the team members. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”
Consistency, applied without judgment, can start to feel overly regimented and pointless. I had a series of assignments in a nuclear power plant. There were a rigid set of procedures that you had to follow if you were to enter the control room. That is the place where the reactors are controlled. It was extremely important that everyone do exactly as they were told. No one disputed that. In fact, we felt reassured that we were all safer because of the procedures. We all knew there were good reasons for the protocols. But, the same kind of rigid, inflexible thinking was applied to every aspect of the business. Trying to schedule a room for a training seminar was a nightmare. Attempting to get managers to adopt a modified approach to giving performance reviews was viewed as blasphemy. It was paralyzing. But, it was consistent.
As a member of a group of facilitators, we once had a new manager who thought we were “out of control.” He wanted to bring order to the chaos of our normal, “undisciplined” approach. He insisted that we each hand in a detailed weekly schedule on Friday and a status report at the end of the week. We had a form with boxes to check off. If we had to reschedule a meeting, we had to submit a “change order request,” then wait for his approval. The result, of course, was that everything slowed down. Our internal clients started to complain that we were unresponsive, and morale took a nosedive. We certainly could have found ways to improve our performance and increase our accountability, but the kind of work we were doing was just not suitable for the kind of regimentation he was trying to impose. We were not a factory.
It is also important to remember that leaders are human beings and do not always feel the same way about things. Like it or not, good or bad, right or wrong, we all have our moods, our good days and our bad days, our own peculiarities, and our own biases. If we operate in a culture that is highly dependent on reward and punishment, being consistent is much more important. We must try to “rise above” our idiosyncrasies in order to avoid creating inequities in our treatment of team members. On the other hand, if we have created a culture in which we initially address problems by identifying them, talking about them openly, and solving them, we have much more flexibility. We have more latitude in the way we identify unacceptable behaviors. Let’s say you are having a bad day. You couldn’t sleep. The traffic was terrible. You had an argument with your teenager, etc. Behaviors that normally would not bother you might become intolerable. Perhaps, you have a team member who likes to stop by and chat about last night’s football game.
On most days that might be fine with you. But, today you may see that as an unnecessary intrusion on your time. In the reward/punishment culture, you have little option but to ignore how you feel. In the more open environment, your team member would not be surprised or offended if you respectfully confronted the interruption. He or she will have learned that you are a human being who is honest about how you feel. A confrontation is not necessarily a prelude to punishment.
Leaders also do not see all team members the same way. Yes, we all have biases. We have different histories with different people. For instance, two team members demonstrate the same behavior – coming to work a half hour late. One of those team members has a history of “bending” the rules, coming in late, and making excuses. The other is always on time and seldom asks for favors or exceptions. The same behavior (half hour late) may be unacceptable for the one but not the other. If your first option is to respectfully confront the behavior, you have the flexibility to handle the two situations differently. You can be fair. If you are a slave to consistency, both team members must be punished or both excused. In either case, you create an inequity.
What leaders can do is have constancy of purpose and principles. Maybe this is splitting hairs, but I believe that what most effective leaders mean by consistency is exactly that. They believe that it is important to have a set of principles that are understood by everyone and that they operate according to those principles all the time. It is also probable that the kind of consistency that alarms me is what many would call regimentation, the kind of environment in which the leader does not have the option of adapting to differing situations and demands. Leadership training that relies too heavily on formulas will mislead participants. No formula works for every team member in every situation.
This kind of flexibility must be earned. The leader will not be allowed to exercise this kind of discretion unless he or she is trusted by the team members. If the leader is not trusted, employees will demand consistency because they fear discrimination, favoritism, cronyism, and poor judgment in general. So, how do leaders earn the trust of their team members?
No matter what kind of business you are in or how many people you have working for you or what type of technology you use, there are certain things that every leader must learn to do “consistently” in order to build trust and create a productive work environment.
- Tell the truth. Good news or bad news. Just say it. Most team members are adults and appreciate knowing where they stand. Nothing promotes fear and anxiety more than uncertainty. Don’t be stingy with information. Unless information is in someone’s private personnel file, or it is sensitive information about new technology, or disclosure is prohibited by law, let people know what is going on.
- Listen. Hear people out. Show them that you understand their point of view. Don’t second-guess, interrogate, jump to conclusions, etc. You don’t have to agree with everything that they say but it is important to truly understand. Listening is not something you are born with. It is a skill that must be learned and most leaders are not very good at it. Take the time and trouble to learn good listening skills.
- Hold people accountable. When a team member’s performance is good, say so. When there is a problem, tell them. Avoid assigning blame, name-calling, judgments and the like but be straight with people about how their behavior impacts the objectives of the team. Even if it is initially uncomfortable, people appreciate knowing where they stand and having an opportunity to correct errors or improve their performance.
- Resolve conflicts. Don’t let disputes linger. Ineffective leaders avoid difficult problems and conflicts. Commit to an environment in which conflict is seen as normal and resolvable. Most conflicts can be resolved in a win/win if the leader knows how and addresses it soon enough.
- Build teams. You’ve heard it before! Organizations are more effective when people work together than when everyone is out for him/herself. Yet some managers persist in setting people against one another with the misguided idea that they will be more creative or motivated if they are competing with one another. There is little mystery to team building. There is a set of steps that a leader can take that will lead to effective employee teams who are committed to helping the organization meet its goals.
Let your people know what you are trying to accomplish. If you are frank about what you are trying to learn and allow your team members to help you, you have a pretty good chance of achieving something good. Effective leadership training that focuses on this kind of constancy of purpose will produce better results than more “rule-bound” approaches. This is hard work. It is, however, the true work of leadership. If your team members trust you, you will be free to exercise your judgment and create the kind of workplace that you, and the team, can be proud of.