This a report on current research about how consistency, and the lack of consistency can affect your employees and your ability to lead them.
My parents divorced when I was three years old. For the next seven years, I was lucky enough to be raised by a loving grandmother who stayed at home with me while my mother, a teacher, went to work to bring home the paycheck. My grandmother and my mother were great parents. They were consistent in their kindness, fairness, discipline when needed and especially in loving me – so my memories of that period are very positive.
When I was ten, my mother married Joe and everything changed. Joe was a charming but mercurial salesman who could be the greatest step-dad one day and a sulking, hostile presence the next. He’d take me out to play catch or show me how to swing a golf club on Saturday and then Sunday, for no reason at all he’d stare at me with disgust and criticize everything I did. I never knew what to expect. I’m sure I wasn’t the easiest child to be around then but I was at an age when I really hungered for a male role model in my life – and though he never hit me, I’ll never forget the psychological pain he inflicted on me. To this day, I still recall the period between age ten and eighteen, (when I left home) as a dark and unhappy time.
>>> I tell you this story because I just finished reading research done by Fadel K. Matta and his team at Michigan State University. They compared three different forms of managerial feedback and its effects on employee stress levels. One experiment involved 202 junior and senior-level undergraduate students divided into three different groups. Voluntary participation in the study was one option for students to complete a research credit requirement for the course. Additionally, all participants were eligible for cash prizes ($25) on the basis of their individual task performance. So there was pressure to succeed at the task.
During the experiment, one group got fair and kindly worded feedback from their “supervisors;” another group got hostile, outrageously unfair feedback; and the third group received a mixture of the fair and the unfair comments about their work.
During the experiment, the subjects’ heart rates were monitored as a way of measuring the stress inflicted by each approach. The group that got the fair feedback was the least stressed – no big surprise. Surprisingly, however, the next least stressed group was the one that received consistently unfair feedback. The group that received a mixture of fair and unfair feedback had the highest levels of stress.
The study seems to tell us that consistency is best. If you’re going to be a jerk, it’s better to be one all the time rather than intermittently. Now I’m not suggesting that you ever be a jerky supervisor. Better to be fair one. But it does make sense to be consistent.
In my work helping organizations improve corporate culture, I often hear employees say that a major virtue they look for in a leader is being able to count on him or her to be predictable. It’s that predictability which contributes to their trust in the leader. Without it, employees hesitate to completely engage in their jobs because they never know what’s coming next. When it comes to our relationship with our boss, I think there’s a part of us who are just 11 year olds in big bodies, looking for a step-dad who consistently loves us. Perhaps there’s a lesson there.
(By the way, later on in life, to his credit, Joe apologized for his behavior and we became good friends. When he died in 1991, I grieved his loss.)
, , , , and , “Is Consistently Unfair Better Than Sporadically Fair? An Investigation of Justice Variability and Stress,” Academy of Management Journal, ID AMJ-2014-0455.R3, February 9, 2016 amj.2014.0455
 I was inspired to read this research after reading a summary in the Harvard Business Review, June, 2016, pg 28 & 29.