We're All Hypocrites. Except Me, Of Course?

Human beings appear to be uniquely constructed to ignore our own hypocritical behaviors, and at the same time, seem to easily spot the hypocrisy of others.

I recently read an article on the subject of bias in decision making that pointed out, when it comes to our own beliefs and behaviors, we tend to ignore information that contridicts our preconceived notions, and have no problem rationalizing behaviors that are inconsistent with what we espouse.  For whatever reason, we filter out our own inconsistent positions, ideas, behaviors, and interests.

In fact, if the article is to be believed, pretty much everyone is guilty of one form of hypocracy or another.

And it is ironic that while we are so bad at identifying our own inconsistent behaviors, people seem to recognize them in others without difficulty.

As a manager, there are two things to take away from this -- that you probably have some inconsistencies between what you advocate and what you do, and people are pretty well tuned into seeing them even though you don't necessarily recognize them yourself.

In fact, as a manager, executive, or other leader, people are watching you a lot closer than they do others.

Have you ever noticed what happens when someone uncovers one of those hypocritical elements? It is often used to try to invalidate much of what the "hypocrite" says -- especially if whati was said is something unpopular with the listener.  And if the hypocritical element can somehow be twisted to appear to be self-serving (or if it actually is self-serving), it's potency increases by an order of magnitude.

For example, when Al Gore was advocating reductions in CO2 emissions in order to slow global warming, many people commented about the hypocracy of his lifestyle (private aircraft, large home, etc.).  And while the fact that there was hypocracy involved (for whatever reason) in this, it didn't make him wrong.  But I've heard numerous people mention it in an attempt to invalidate his position, and it definitely damaged his credibility.  The net effect was to often prevented more serious consideration of his message.  [disclaimer:  While I'm not a climate change denyer, I did not, and still do not, agree with Gore's proposed course of action.]

In the business environment, we see this kind of thing happen a lot.  A supervisor is "unfair" because she grants a vacation request to a perceived ally, and rejects one for someone she is perceived as not liking.  While there may be perfectly valid reasons for the action, that is rarely the conclusion drawn by her subordinates.  And we have to remember, my hypothetical supervisor might very well have a personal reason for the preference she is showing in the above example, and not even realize it.  As I originally argued -- it is much harder to spot this kind of thing in yourself than in others.

Once a manager is branded as "hypocritical" (or, more commonly, unfair), the observation erodes credibility, authority, and trust.  Even small transgressions are then extrapolated by employees to be a damning representation of a flawed character.  In other words, the manager losses the benefit of the doubt.

This is exactly why consistency -- particularly, where your own personal interests could be interpreted as being involved -- is of paramount importance to leaders.

How do you make sure you aren't labled a hypocrite?  Here are some suggestions --

  • Be aware that your own behaviors are probably a blind spot for you, and think hard about how your decisions, actions, and statements may be consistent (or inconsistent) with the rest of what you do.
  • Whenever a decision might have a personal impact on you -- even if it is third order -- bounce it off of someone you trust to check for how is likely to be seen and interpreted by others as hypocritical.
  • If someone says you're being unfair or hypocritical, take it seriously.  Don't just aggressively defend yourself, but really try to step back and see it from the perspective of others.
  • If you think you've made a mistake, admit it and ask for forgiveness.  Since we all make these kinds of errors, you'll disarm criticism by fessing up.

If you work hard to be consistent, and recognize your own pitfalls, you can continue to build trust and credibility, which in the long run will make you a much more effective executive.

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Corporate Thriller novels: LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZE, and DELIVERABLES.  These are all based on extensions of my basic experiences in the world of corporate management.