Consistency, Change and Leadership

We Love Consistency
According to David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, our brains are hard-wired to like consistency. Consistency helps us understand the world so we can make good predictions about what will happen next. If we consistently burn our fingers every time we touch a flame, for example, we learn to keep them away from fire – a good thing. We are so hard-wired for consistency that our brains reward us with a dose of feel-good chemicals whenever we make a correct prediction about what will happen next.

We especially like consistency in others. We like it so much that if someone is inconsistent on something important to us, we react strongly – we feel betrayed by that person. That’s why people running for office often try to cast their opponents as “flip-floppers”. They’re hoping to capitalize on that sense of betrayal associated with inconsistency.

We Also Love Change
Our need for consistency, however, is at odds with reality. Change is constant. Not only is the world around us in a constant state of flux, so are we. We go to school, build families, get jobs, change jobs, move, travel, etc., all of which can be exciting and highly anticipated change.

Change changes the way we live and think about ourselves and the world. I grew up in Chicago and remember being an avid fan of the local NBA team, the Chicago Bulls. When I moved to Portland, I became a fan of the local Portland Trail Blazers fairly quickly. While some of my Chicago friends saw my shift in team loyalty as natural, others saw it as a betrayal of the person they used to know.

Good Change or Bad Change?
Research tells us that how we respond to inconsistency in someone else is not based on the facts of the situation but on whether or not we consider ourselves a part of his or her “tribe.” In other words, we’re more accepting of change in others if we feel akin to them.

All of this reinforces some important things we know related to leadership and organizational change. We know that organizational change creates varying levels of tension in the people who work there because of their natural desire for consistency. Whether or not employees see the change as growth or betrayal will depend largely on whether they feel an allegiance to leadership before the change is initiated. An implication here is that leaders need to always work on strengthening their connection to followers if they hope to minimize the tension that occurs inevitably with change and have it seen as growth.

Leaders Preserve the Core to Support Change
In addition, this reminds us of another important leadership axiom. In one of the most influential business books of our era, Built to Last, Collins and Porras describe the most successful companies as having the ability to preserve the core and change everything else. These successful companies capitalized on something important by carefully choosing and promoting the non-negotiables at work – the things employees could expect to remain consistent, no matter what. It appears these non-negotiables satisfied the human need for consistency yet allowed the companies to grow and change as the times required.

The paradox is that we seek both consistency and change. Great leaders understand this. They know the non-negotiables that define who they are as leaders while staying open to changing everything else, and they bring the same clarity to the organizations they lead.

– David and Susy