Inconsistent Bossing: A Surefire Way to Disengage

post from Nicole Lipkin:

We all
have those days when our words and actions don’t come out the way we intended.
Or we take our stress out on others. We intend to give a compliment or a simple
criticism and it instead sounds more critical than we really feel. Between
friends, a simple “I’m sorry, I’m just stressed lately” can repair these
missteps. Our friends know that just because we were their loyal confidante one
day and a nutcase the next is not necessarily a reflection on the friendship
itself. 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 boss and employee.

we hate to admit it, our bosses can change the emotional tone of our day with a
couple words, either encouraging or critical. Thus, it is extremely important
for a boss to watch how they reinforce their employees’ behavior and maintain
consistency. Inconsistent bossing can
turn a great employee who is excited to come to work every day into a disgruntled
nonplussed employee who allows him/herself to become complacent and

If a
boss changes their tune on a daily basis, an employee will become confused. If
an employee receives a “Great job!” one day and then a nitpicking criticism the
next on a similar performance, the employee will simply be confused. Of course
the boss may not have any idea that they did any damage. The boss may have
spilled coffee on themselves on the way to work, someone may have looked at
them the wrong way, or maybe there is trouble at home. Then, they got to work,
saw a small error in the employee’s performance and – instead of leading with
the positive – they tell the employee the small thing that was wrong. The boss
returns to their work, clueless that damage was just inflicted; the employee
returns to his/her desk dejected and baffled.

time, repetitive inconsistent behavior like this on the part of the boss can
lead to learned helplessness in the
employee. Essentially learned
means the employee once thought of themselves as competent and
good at what they do, but because of
their boss’ inconsistent reinforcement, their opinion of themselves degenerates
and they’ve come to think of themselves as incompetent. This of course can all
be avoided by self-awareness.

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 get better at training our minds, watching them.
There is
a phenomenon called Emotional Contagion that
deals specifically with this concentric 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. It’s pretty amazing when you conceive how
powerful a small positive gesture can be. The same ripple effect can of course
occur when projecting negativity. Want proof? 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.

get scientific for a second.
Barsade (2002), currently a Professor of Management at The Wharton School,
conducted seminal work into the positive and negative effects of the emotional
dance that takes place in every group. 
For the study, she assigned 94 business school undergraduates to 29
different groups ranging in size from two to four participants, including one
ringer (otherwise known as a confederate), an actor from the drama department.
Each group would decide how to allocate money from a bonus pool. Unbeknownst to
the rest of the group, the ringer was instructed by Barsade to act out
different mood and energy levels, such as cheerful enthusiasm, serene warmth,
hostile irritability and depressed sluggishness.

found that the participants acted differently, depending on the actor’s
performance. The actor’s cheerfulness made the group more cheerful; the actor’s
anger made the group angrier. Positive emotions created more cooperation;
negative emotions increased conflict and decreased cooperative decision-making.

observed, “People are walking mood inductors, continuously influencing the
moods and then the judgments and behaviors of others.” The effect occurs in
every type of organization, in every industry, and in every large and small
work group.

creates stability and a stable work environment promotes well-being among
workers, both superior and subordinate alike. 
It is similar to a family dynamic. It has long been accepted that a stable
home 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 home can lead to, well, I think
we’re all aware of the effects of unstable homes. The workplace is no
different. It’s a kind of family.

Lipkin is a business and organizational psychologist, consultant, and speaker,
holding a doctorate in Clinical Psychology as well as an MBA. She is the
president of Equilibria Leadership Consulting and the founder of Equilibria
Psychological and Consultation Services. In addition to her new book, What
Keeps Leaders Up at Night,
Nicole is the co-author of Y in the Workplace.
Nicole has shared her expertise on NPR, NBC, CBS, Fox Business News, and other
high-profile media outlets. She lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.