The Impact of Inconsistent Management

October 3, 2013

inconsistent management

All of us have experienced inconsistent management, where we had those days when our words or actions don’t translate the way we intended or we take our stress out on others. Maybe something happened at home. Maybe the 15 meetings you have today along with the 5 deadlines are making you feel like you need to curl up into fetal position. Maybe the traffic on that stupid road that always has traffic for no reason finally got the best of you. Now your ability to manage and express yourself the way you want is impaired.

Often, between friends a simple “I’m sorry, I’m just stressed lately” can repair these missteps because most friends cut you a break and know your words or behaviors are not malicious. The workplace, however, is a more delicate environment and a simple “I’m sorry” may not be as effective, or even appropriate if we are talking about the dynamic between manager and employee.

Effects of Inconsistent Management 

Although it may be hard to stomach, a manager can change the emotional tone of an employee’s day with a couple of words, either encouraging or critical. Therefore, it is extremely important for a manager to watch how they reinforce their employees’ behavior and maintain consistency. Consistency is one of those workplace hygiene factors that can create stability and a stable work environment promotes wellbeing among workers.

If you change your tune on a daily basis by giving a “Great job” one day and a nitpicky criticism the next on similar performance, the employee will simply become confused.  The manager returns to their work clueless damage was just inflicted; the employee returns to his/her desk dejected and baffled. Inconsistent management can turn a great employee who is excited to come to work every day into a disengaged and annoyed employee who allows him/herself to become complacent and disinterested.

It is similar to a family dynamic. It has long been accepted that a stable home that offers consistency is the best home for a child to grow up in. It creates the nurturing backbone for a child to fulfill their potential.  An unstable and inconsistent home can lead to, well, I think we’re all aware of the effects of unstable homes. The workplace is no different because not only do the same dynamics seem to play out but also, lets face it, many of us seem to spend the same amount of time with our work family as we do with our home family.

Three Scientific Factors behind the Damage of Inconsistent Management

This all may seem obvious but, many managers fall into the trap of inconsistency because no one handles their stuff perfectly all the time. However, there are three scientific factors behind the damage of inconsistent management so there’s no getting around this.

  1.  First, over time, repetitive inconsistent behavior like this on the part of the manager can lead to learned helplessness in the employee. Basically, learned helplessness means the employee once thought of themselves as competent and good at what they do but because of their manager’s inconsistent reinforcement their opinion of themselves can degenerate and they can find themselves living in a state of confusion and fear.
  2.  Second, we process negative information more thoroughly and more intensely than positive information, e.g. we brood over losing $100 more than we celebrate over winning $100. We’ve all heard ourselves qualifying positive situations like, “He’s great but…”, “This job pays well, but…”, “My childhood was awesome, except…” and so the bad story begins.  In a 2011 study by Terese Amabile, negative effects of a setback at work on happiness were more than twice as strong as the positive effect of an event that signaled progress. Even more significant is the fact that 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. Basically, negative events cause significantly more impact and are more soul sucking than positive ones. To make it worse, in a study done by Roy Baumeister, good stuff can make up for bad stuff but it’s a five to one ratio (you need five goods to diminish the impact of one bad). So a manager’s inconsistency can stick like superglue to the brains of their employee’s even if he/she is generally a great manager.
  3. Third, there is a phenomenon called Emotional Contagion that deals specifically with the projection of attitudes and feelings and it is very simple: if you smile and are positive around someone they will feel good and most likely carry that positivity to the next place they go, which can create a ripple effect, and is pretty amazing when you conceive of how powerful a small positive gesture can be. The same ripple effect can of course occur when projecting negativity. Don’t believe me? Take a moment and think about whether you feel good or bad around a positive person and/or negative person. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure this one out.

Sigal Barsade, a professor at Wharton Business School, studies emotional contagion and observed that “People are walking mood inductors, continuously influencing the moods and then the judgments and behaviors of others.” In her research she has found that when participants are exposed to someone acting cheerfully in a group, the group behaves more cheerfully. When participants were exposed to someone acting in an angry way, the group became angrier. Positive emotions created more cooperation; negative emotions increased conflict and decreased cooperative decision-making. The effect occurs in every type of organization, in every industry, and in every large and small work group.

So what can you do to avoid inconsistent managing? Managers can take a moment when they arrive to work (or whenever necessary) to self-evaluate their mindset, see where there thoughts lay to make sure they don’t project their own whimsical emotions on others. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being in a bad mood or giving an employee constructive criticism. What we’re after is ensuring that whatever reinforcement we give is constructive and is based on the job done and not an irrelevant fleeting emotion that we brought into the workplace. We’re all human, things happen, but we can better at training our minds and keeping our intentions, verbalizations and behaviors consistent.

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About The Author

NICOLE LIPKIN, a sought-after speaker and consultant, holds a doctorate in Clinical Psychology as well as an MBA. She has shared her expertise on NPR, NBC, CBS, Fox Business News, and other high-profile media outlets. Find out more at

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    […] the whistle for an offence made by one team and ignoring it for the other. Well, this infuriation translates across to business. Those who are consistent will see trust build. Why? Simple. It is just so much easier to know […]

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