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When leaders change their minds

Why leaders who fail to practise what they preach aren’t always seen as hypocrites

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Try as they might, leaders are not able to always do what they say. Some followers will find this inconsistency understandable; others condemn it as hypocrisy.

In From inconsistency to hypocrisy: When does “saying one thing but doing another” invite condemnation?, Daniel Effron, LBS Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour, and his co-authors seek a way for leaders to anticipate when ‘saying one thing but doing another’ counts as hypocrisy so they don’t invite negative judgments.

Whereas previous scholarship on hypocrisy in organisations equates hypocrisy with “failing to practise what you preach,” Dr Effron and colleagues argue hypocrisy is a subjective interpretation of why the practising and preaching are inconsistent with each other, according to the paper – co-written by Kieran O’Connor, Assistant Professor of Commerce, McIntire School of Commerce; Hannes Leroy, Associate Professor of Organisational and Personnel Management, Rotterdam School of Management; and Brian Lucas, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour, School of Industrial and Labour Relations, Cornell University.

As a result, not all leaders who say one thing but do another will be perceived as hypocrites.

“Business leaders are advised to walk the talk and to practise what they preach and that is good advice,” says Dr Effron. “However, it is naive to think your words and deeds will never be inconsistent in a way that leaves you open to an accusation of hypocrisy.

“Life is not that simple. We all need to balance values that can come into conflict, and leaders especially need to do this without coming across as hypocrites.”

“Life is not that simple. We all need to balance values that can come into conflict, and leaders especially need to do this without coming off as hypocrites.”

Organisations are never going to be perfectly consistent all of the time, argues Dr Effron. Human error, poor communication and bureaucratic obstacles can all lead to inconsistencies within companies that act in good faith. Competing demands may also explain inconsistencies. For example, companies trying to minimise their environmental impact must also make a profit. Leaders must manage the trade-off between different stakeholders. In some cases, they will need to give “the rhetoric to one side and the decision to the other,” as the late American political scientist Professor Murray Edelman put it in The Symbolic Uses of Politics.

For example, UK TV chef Jamie Oliver recently fended off accusations of hypocrisy after he accepted a deal to put his name to range of sandwiches sold on Shell petrol station forecourts, despite campaigning for the UN on global warming.

“There are pitfalls working for any client and they all have their own baggage,” Oliver noted of the deal, pointing to the fact it would bring better food to people stopping to fill up on fuel – a long-held goal of his.

What is hypocrisy?


In most circumstances, looking hypocritical can be extremely damaging to organisations and individuals. When businesses are perceived to have acted hypocritically, it has been shown to  reduce staff productivity and hit share prices

According to Dr Effron, research in this area has tended to “tangle” two concepts: inconsistency and hypocrisy. His paper responds by providing a new theoretical model that distinguishes between each one. According to the model, when people notice an individual or an organisation saying one thing but doing another, they ask themselves, how much inconsistency has occurred here? If the answer is “a lot,” then people next ask themselves, “Why has this inconsistency occurred?”

If they answer this second question by inferring that the individual or organisation is trying to appear or feel more virtuous than they deserve, they perceive hypocrisy and condemn the inconsistency. However, if they can answer this question by pointing to a different reason – one that does not involve an undeserved claim on virtue – they perceive no hypocrisy and are more likely to forgive or even praise the inconsistency.

In short, Effron argues that “failing to practice what you preach” only counts as hypocrisy in people’s minds if they interpret the preaching as an unjustified moral claim.

“If leaders find themselves unable to walk their talk for legitimate reasons, they need to communicate these reasons clearly and transparently to their followers.”

Inconsistency


If organisations understand that inconsistency can seem like hypocrisy, why is inconsistency so prevalent in business?

One reason is that promoting a value can ironically earn a company a “moral licence” to breach the same value – so long as the inconsistency is not interpreted as hypocrisy. Another reason is that failing to uphold a value can make preaching it more effective – again, as long as one avoids the appearance of hypocrisy. For example, research suggests that obese patients are more receptive to health advice delivered by obese doctors because they find such doctors more relatable and less judgemental.

Another reason is that trusted leaders who espouse values they do not yet implement can seem inspiring, rather than hypocritical. A 2014 study found employees were more productive when leaders promoted diversity, even if the firm was not particularly diverse, because endorsing this value was interpreted as an aspiration that would presumably be achieved before long.

Of course, inconsistency in business is sometimes actually motivated by hypocrisy – a desire to get the benefits of the moral high ground without the effort of getting there. Evidence for this hypothesis can be found in lab experiments where participants allocated funds selfishly while simultaneously striving to appear moral and fair to other participants. At an organisational level, a similar effect can be found in companies that tout their values on gender and the environment, for example, to disguise a poor track record.

So leaders can fail to practise what they preach for all sorts of reasons, only some of which are likely to be interpreted as hypocrisy. Leaders need to be aware of when and why their inconsistency is likely to seem hypocritical so they can avoid the ire of different stakeholders.

Implication


“The implication is that we need to move past the advice that leaders should avoid inconsistency between their words and their deeds at all costs. Managers should certainly avoid hypocrisy, but not all inconsistency counts as hypocrisy,” says Dr Effron.

“If leaders find themselves unable to walk their talk for legitimate reasons, they need to communicate these reasons clearly and transparently to their followers. Otherwise, the leaders risk appearing like hypocrites who are trying to appear more virtuous than they really are.”

Ultimately, Dr Effron’s paper hopes to shift research on hypocrisy from what researchers think should count as hypocrisy to what people actually think is hypocrisy and to develop business tools to manage the consequences.

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