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The Problem With Style-Shifting Leaders


Followers pay the price when leaders are transformational one day and abusive the next

Checkers figures representing the group and the leader, blue background
Markus Spiske/Unsplash

Think of a boss you’ve had. Any one will do. Did they give you a rousing speech every morning and make you want to work through lunch? Maybe they were the exact opposite—little more than a clock-puncher who wouldn’t reward or reprimand anyone.

Chances are they did not fit either of these moulds. They could have had flashes of inspiration and days of passivity, but they likely showed a mix of behaviours depending on everything from stress levels to the management book on their nightstand. In other words, our bosses, like most of us, are inconsistent.

Yet if you scan the leadership literature, as Cindy Suurd Ralph did, you’ll believe otherwise. Suurd Ralph is now an assistant professor at the Royal Military College of Canada in the Department of Military Psychology and Leadership. When she was working on her PhD in social psychology at Queen’s University, she found study after study examining just one leadership style at a time. Few dug into the reality of leaders’ inconsistencies, let alone the effects on followers when their behaviours were inconsistent.

Eventually, this curiosity became the focus of her thesis, co-supervised by Julian Barling, professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business.

“I was wondering about the cognitive process of followers who must make sense of which version of their leader they encounter from day to day,” says Suurd Ralph. “It gets much harder to predict, particularly if you’ve seen over time that your leader can act in different ways. Perhaps that changes your experience of work.”

Her hunch was that if followers observe their leaders as inconsistent, they will be ambivalent towards them—conflicted in their own emotions and reactions. That, in turn, will affect their workplace attitudes and well-being. Spoiler alert: she wasn’t wrong.

Abusive leaders cast a shadow

To test her hunch, Suurd Ralph and Barling devised a series of studies that examined combinations of three leadership styles: transformational, abusive supervision and passive. Transformational leaders can inspire positive change in followers, while abusive supervision is marked by yelling, belittling, scapegoating and credit-stealing. A passive leader might look like that clock-puncher who fails to reward or punish.  

In the first study, Suurd Ralph and Barling presented participants with different scenarios, including one depicting a leader with both transformational and abusive supervision styles. In study two, participants reported on their actual leaders.

Across both studies, the researchers found that followers felt ambivalent towards inconsistent leaders, and that this did indeed affect their workplace attitudes. They found that when leaders showed both transformational and abusive supervision styles, the resulting ambivalence led followers to mistrust and avoid their leaders and have negative feelings about the workplace.

Interestingly, there was no evidence of ambivalence when leaders showed both transformational and passive leadership styles. The researchers speculate that this could be because passive leadership tends to be less visible than abusive supervision.

Beyond ambivalence

Suurd Ralph and Barling are now considering followup studies on inconsistent leaders. Although her initial hunch was mostly right about the role of ambivalence, they believe there are likely other ways that unpredictable leaders can affect followers.

“Let’s say a leader is really hard on us, but we think they’re doing it to help us get better at our jobs,” Suurd Ralph says. “That might be a scenario where we don’t mind some level of inconsistency if we think it’s somehow for our own benefit. So that type of attribution—why we think a leader is acting that way—really might change how we react to them.”

Likewise, she adds, our supervisors’ inconsistency might not bother us if we understand why they are acting that way, perhaps understanding that they are under a lot of pressure, facing a tight deadline or dealing with their own challenging boss.

There is some evidence to support the notion that inconsistent leadership is a function of stress. In a recently published study, participants rated their leaders’ transformational and abusive behaviours in routine and stressful situations. The researchers found that followers observed more inconsistent behaviour in their leaders when those leaders were stressed. Even so, they also found that employees who observed more inconsistency from their leaders experienced more stress themselves.

Aiming for consistency

So what can leaders do to be more consistent?

Suurd Ralph says there are likely many reasons that explain leader inconsistency—including how their leadership role models acted and how well they can self-regulate—so training is essential.

“I think we have to talk about consistency in our leadership training,” she says. “Instead of just saying, ‘Here are some really good leadership tactics, use them,’ maybe we should be saying, ‘Use them, but avoid these other common negative behaviours that lead to perceptions of inconsistency.’”

It is also important to address the pressures leaders face. “We often romanticize leaders to a point where we think they couldn’t possibly have challenges or mental health issues of their own.”

But that’s just not the case, she says. “Organizations should encourage leaders to take care of themselves, get the rest and recovery time they need, so that when they come into work, they can have the best chance of being able to self-regulate, which helps them be more consistent.”

In the end, change begins with the understanding that humans broadly prefer consistency, she says. “We don’t really like to be around people whose behaviours are unpredictable. And if we are avoiding our leaders, how likely is it that we are doing our best work?”