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Inconsistent behaviour by female leaders is noticed more quickly and perceived more negatively than similar behaviour by male leaders. This makes it difficult for female leaders to be flexible and deviate in behaviour when the situation so requires, concludes socio-economist Emma van Gerven. The good news: strong relationships with employees can be a counterbalance. On Tuesday, 18 June, Van Gerven will defend her PhD thesis at the University of Amsterdam.

‘Consistent behaviour, meaning always acting in the same way, is something we find very important in a leader,’ explains Van Gerven. ‘It gives leaders credibility and provides followers with certainty. But leaders are also expected to be flexible when a situation calls for divergent behaviour. This can be a tricky balance.’ According to Van Gerven, the crucial point is whether deviations in a leader's behaviour are understandable or remain unexplained. ‘The latter can lead to unpredictability.’

Narcissistic traits and stereotypical images

Van Gerven calls unpredictability one of the narcissistic traits we often observe in leaders. ‘Many leaders are chosen for their narcissistic traits, such as dominant behaviour and excessive self-confidence. However, in the long run, these traits can hinder good leadership. It is interesting to know what the consequences of specifically unpredictable behaviour are, since this narcistic trait has not received much attention yet.’ Van Gerven analysed how these consequences of unpredictability differ between men and women, ‘because most narcissistic traits do not align with the stereotypical image of a woman.’

Employees primarily noticed inconsistent behaviour in female leaders

In a field study of 165 leaders and their teams, Van Gerven investigated to what extent the behaviour of female and male leaders was inconsistent, how it was perceived, and what the consequences were. Unpredictable leaders were found to have a negative effect on their employees, making them less productive. But employees primarily noticed inconsistent behaviour in female leaders - much less so than in male leaders - and judged them more harshly for it. ‘Inconsistent behaviour in female leaders is therefore more quickly given a negative label.’

The quality of the relationship

Van Gerven was also curious in how far the quality of the work relationship affects employees' experiences. ‘A strong relationship can soften an employee's perception: unpredictable behaviour is still noticed, but the leader can be forgiven.’ Van Gerven discovered that when there is a weak relationship, employees judge inconsistent behaviour much more negatively and it has a greater impact on their performance. ‘Strengthening relationships can thus make a difference, for example by being more transparent about certain choices,’ concludes Van Gerven. ‘It is advisable for organisations to support their leaders in this.’

Dissertation and defence ceremony

This study on the role of gender in inconsistent leadership behaviour is part of Emma van Gerven's doctoral research: ‘When you can't follow the leader: Inconsistency: Its antecedents and outcomes’, supervisors: Prof. A.H.B. de Hoogh and Prof.  D.N. den Hartog, Co-supervisor: Prof. F.D. Belschak. She will defend this dissertation on 18 June at the University of Amsterdam.

Inconsistent behaviour by referees

Van Gerven also examined how spectators react to inconsistent decisions by football referees. She manipulated the consistency of decisions after two similar situations during a football match. Neutral spectators were found to be angrier when they saw inconsistent decisions than when they saw consistent ones. Not surprisingly, supporters had the strongest reaction to inconsistent decisions: angriest when the outcome was unfavourable for them, and least angry when it was favourable. People have a dislike for unfair decisions, but it depends on the extent to which they identify with the victims concludes Van Gerven.