COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | STAN SEWITCH

Avoiding the perception of hypocrisy

There is no surer way for a leader to lose followers than to be perceived as behaving hypocritically — professing one set of values, morals or ethics, while behaving in contradictory fashion.

Few leaders I've met think they are hypocrites. That number is far smaller than the proportion of followers who complain about hypocritical leadership behaviors. In other words, many more leaders are viewed as hypocrites than those who would admit to it, or even deserve it.

I think the reason is that most leaders don't realize it when they are behaving in a manner that others would perceive as inconsistent with the leader's stated values.

For example, if a leader exhorts the team to pay attention to costs, then asks the executive assistant to book a flight to London, business class, an observing employee might think this is a double standard.

What the employee may not know is that the leader could have had so many miles racked up on business travel that the upgrade was free. Certainly, if the leader is paying full-fare for the trip, he or she might justify the expense as modest compensation for spending long hours on international travel and taking weekend time to do so.

Again, the employee perceives only the indulgence, not the rationale.

Another example of unintended hypocrisy I have seen is when senior executives discuss the need for everyone to pull together to improve the value of the company's assets, but not everyone benefits directly from that asset appreciation.

The average employee, who does not likely participate in such compensation elements as stock or cash incentives to the degree that senior leaders do (if at all), hears a leader say something like, "If we work extra hard this year and reach our stretch goals, we will ensure a thriving company many years into the future."

This implies an ethic of a goal beyond the immediate gratification of today's salary. It's a call to a purpose that goes beyond the individual.

That employee then thinks to themselves, "Sure, you want us all to bust our butts so your stock value goes up. I get single-digit salary increases and you get hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital gain."

The employee hears hypocrisy.

Now, I don't think leaders who receive such compensation packages need to apologize for working smart and hard for decades in order to reach a point in their career where they are earning such things as stock and a significant portion of their total compensation in incentives. And the higher one climbs in the tree of business leadership, the skinnier the limbs. Risk and reward are positively and powerfully correlated.

Depending upon aptitude, fortitude and motivation, capitalism provides an open invitation to anyone. I have no problem with someone receiving a large compensation package if they earned it through honest hard work and making contributions that exceed the value of their compensation. I believe every person needs to create a profitable return on the organization's compensation investment in them.

But even so, that contribution is not often well-known or understood by fellow employees who may not have the ability or opportunity to assess the executive's performance in such terms. Leaders need to be constantly aware of this fact as they choose their words, decide to behave, compose communications and give speeches.

Following rules is another area of potentially hypocritical leadership behavior. My father came from the "Do as I say, not as I do" school of parenting. You can imagine how effective that approach was for me. No follower wants to hear that, see it or even smell it.

If employees perceive that a leader requires others to follow procedures and policies that the leader herself ignores, they will soon figure out how to get around any rule that is inconvenient or prevents them from doing what they would otherwise do without the rule.

This also means that the procedures and rules must have good reasons.

Bureaucracy for its own sake is seldom a good thing in any organization.

Awareness is the key. Every leader must continually examine their own behavior and ask, "If other employees viewed this decision or this behavior, could they interpret it as hypocritical from their perspective?"

If the answer is yes, then the leader should rethink it. If the behavior or decision still makes good sense, addressing the perceptions with transparency and education will lower the chances that the leader will be painted with the unwanted brush of hypocrisy.


Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company and can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net.

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