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LEADERSHIP: Are your actions creating a "Zone of Rejection" among your employees?

dmackin-7-07I guess you know a blog is successful when people start to ask you to blog on particular topics. That happened to me last week when someone asked me to write a blog on the importance of a boss being consistent. Apparently, this individual was struggling with his boss and wanted to forward the blog as a way to address the problem. While forwarding the blog may not be the best solution, talking about consistency is an important topic.

Seventy percent of the time most of us are heuristic thinkers. That means we like information and situations that are easily processed, visually attractive, consistent in approach and in agreement with our existing knowledge. When a boss acts within that framework, we are in our “zone of acceptance.”  However, when a boss acts outside that framework – creating too much variation and dissonance – that makes us extremely uncomfortable and we enter a “zone of rejection.” The more our ego is involved, the larger our zone of rejection will become. For example, if I talk privately to my boss about a project and get his or her support, but then the boss disagrees during a larger group meeting, I will become very angry and reject any new thought or opinion immediately, even if his/her change of direction is a good one.

“When a boss acts outside that framework [creating too much variation and dissonance] that makes us extremely uncomfortable and we enter a ‘zone of rejection.'”

As people, we have a strong preference for consistency in our lives. We create “mental models” of our expectancies about the world, the people in them, and our relationships. When our mental models and the real world agree, we are happy campers, as all seems right to us. However, for example, many people created mental models about how employers should treat them after years on the job. When layoffs started, they were shocked to be let go and provided so little compensation for their years of service. How could that happen? Yet, the employer never really promised anything beyond the paycheck. We simply created a mental model of what should have happened. Ironically, the boss may not even be aware of the mental model and the inconsistency generated.

Inconsistency between our mental models and the real world creates dissonance: a cognitive, emotional, physiological and behavioral state that arises when things don’t go the way we expect them to. This causes confusion and interruption in our sense of balance and security. Dissonance is not a pleasant state, and as a result we try to avoid it.

When dissonance occurs we automatically try to restore consistency, just like our need to restore balance when we’re slipping. One way we do that is to deny the problem by pretending that the circumstance didn’t happen.  How many times have we interacted with someone who was off-base, and we respond as if nothing was peculiar. There was a CEO for one company years ago who would bring raw garlic and onions for lunch, opening the container in a room full of people. Over and over again, people would act as if there was nothing distasteful happening.

Sometimes we’ll overload all the bad dissonance with only good thoughts and memories of other occasions. Other times we will not seek out information that might be contrary to our existing views (selective exposure), or we’ll rationalize our thoughts and feelings about something that really did happen.

Of course, as kids, we learned to change our evaluation of what happened by putting it in a different perspective. How many of us have said, “Well, it’s better to get a 57 on the test than a 45?” 

So what are the risks for a boss who regularly acts inconsistently and causes dissonance in employees? I believe those risks include:  distorted mental models, denial, avoidance, rationalization, closed-mindedness, and falsehoods. This is definitely not the environment that will drive high performance.

  • This is an interesting article. I am wandering if anyone has run into different kinds of inconsistencies in a person’s leadership and what action was taken.

    Example – inconsistent application of policy or procedure. There are instances that occur where you can be fair or consistent, but not both. How do you handle that?

    Example #2 – inconsistent behavior in a leader. I’ve observed a leader who one day is outgoing, approachable, friendly and the next hour/day like a light switch that is turned off will treat people with blank stares and not acknowledge greetings or people who approach them.

    Example #3 – the leader who gives conflicting directions about the same task or assignment.

    I would appreciate anyones comments or advice for these examples.

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