What happens when bosses don’t practice what they preach?

The boss urges employees to go to the gym for a workout at lunchtime. “Your health is important to me,” she says.

Six months later, workers realize they don’t get to the gym often or at all, because the boss’s relentless deadlines glue them to their desks.

When managing the complexities of organizations, saying one thing and doing another – known as word-deed misalignment – is inevitable, says Brian Lucas, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the ILR School. “These inconsistencies result from having to answer to multiple stakeholders, constraints on resources or simply because we’re human.”

While word-deed misalignment often engenders negative reactions, he says, it can be viewed as neutral or even positive, depending on how it is managed.

In the paper “From Inconsistency to Hypocrisy: When Does ‘Saying One Thing But Doing Another’ Invite Condemnation?” Lucas and his co-authors – Daniel Effron of the London Business School, Kieran O’Connor of the University of Virginia and Hannes Leroy of Erasmus University in the Netherlands – introduce a model to explain how people perceive, interpret and respond to word-deed misalignment. The paper appeared in the 2018 issue of Research in Organizational Behavior.

Misalignment alone does not invite condemnation. But misalignment that is perceived as hypocritical does. “Leaders are perceived as hypocritical when audiences interpret their behavior as trying to appear more virtuous than they actually are,” Lucas says.

For example, if workers interpret a boss as trying to appear high in integrity (“I care about my workers’ health”) while not actually following through (intentionally not giving workers enough time to go to the gym), then she will be labeled a hypocrite and her reputation will suffer.

“If you engage in misaligned behavior and audiences both perceive it as misaligned and interpret it as hypocrisy, that’s when you get negative reactions to the misalignment,” Lucas said.

Negative reactions can result in reputational and other consequences for individuals and their organizations, he says.

How, then, can leaders avoid that outcome?

To lessen the likelihood that inconsistencies will be perceived as misalignments, Lucas advises cultivating a strong reputation for integrity: behaving honestly, treating people fairly, being cognizant of the organization’s culture and delivering messages benevolently. Human brains are hardwired to detect inconsistencies in others’ behaviors. This tendency amplifies when the other person is untrustworthy and likely to betray us. But, importantly, it diminishes when we see the other person as high in integrity.

For example, the behaviors of the boss who advocates workouts will have a higher likelihood of being perceived as intentionally misaligned if she has a track record of mistreating employees.

Factors affecting how audiences interpret misalignments include how motivated they are to condemn the manager, whether a manager has suffered for past misdeeds, the blatancy of the inconsistency (with ambiguous inconsistencies judged less harshly) and the moral versus pragmatic frame of the manager’s words and deeds.

For example, has the boss who advocates workouts made good on past commitments? Has she shown she cares about worker well-being, such as by fighting for parental leave or to keep workers’ laptops up to date? Does she come across as a caring person? Positive responses to such questions will increase the likelihood that her workers will let misaligned behavior slide, the researchers said.

Morality plays a role in perception, Lucas said.

“Leaders who take a moral position make themselves prone to less charitable interpretations when they’re inconsistent because they seem to be violating their own moral values.”

To repair a sullied reputation, Lucas recommends that organizations earn moral benefits – for example, by establishing policies or programs that align with their words.

“Given that some misalignment is inevitable … and can even be strategic and beneficial … we suggest that ‘manage misalignment’ is better advice than ‘minimize misalignment,’” the authors write.

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Rebecca Valli