01 September 2022 10:00:48 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

The perils of double standards in leaders

If the leadership has credibility, then their example inspires better followership | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Johnson & Johnson was recently in the news. Their baby talcum powder would be discontinued globally by 2023. What was interesting though was that while they pulled the product from the shelves in the US and other developed markets, they continue to sell the product in India and other markets.

The product had received multiple complaints — it contained asbestos, women had also complained that it contributed to ovarian cancer and pediatricians had always been cautioning mothers against using it for babies because of the risk of respiratory illness.

Yet the company chose to stop sales in markets where the regulatory pressure was intense and milk the product for its sales and profits in other markets where regulation was lax. Obviously, some leaders in J&J were seeing double. All of us as human beings are prey to double-speak, seeing double with different people and in different situations — in effect engaging in double standards.

But when a leader engages in it, the effects are even worse. It creates a culture of double standards and a slippery slope for both the team and the organisation he leads. What are some of the ‘seeing double’ traps we can fall into?

Others vs ourselves

We often judge others by what they do and ourselves by what we aspire to do. For others what’s real, for us what’s ideal? Finland Prime Minister Sanna Marin found herself in trouble because of the leaked videos showing her dancing and having a good time. It was hypocritical of people to pounce on her when they have let hundreds of male politicians and even Prime Ministers get away with worse. Most often the critics would themselves have no trouble letting their hair down at a party. And yet a different standard is applied to others.

Ministers scream from the rooftops about the evils of dynastic politics while their own children occupy plum posts. Politicians lecture about the benefits of educating children in their mother tongue while their own children go to English medium schools.

Bjorn Lomborg, President of the Copenhagen Consensus and author of False Alarm wrote in the Las Vegas Review Journal: “The rich world’s fossil fuel hypocrisy is on full display in its response to the global energy crisis after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the wealthy G7 countries admonish the world’s poor to use only renewables because of climate concerns, Europe and the US is begging Arab nations to expand oil production. Germany is reopening coal power plants, while Spain and Italy ramp up African gas production.... a single person in the rich world uses more fossil fuel energy than all the energy available to 23 poor Africans.”

Leaders in business can find themselves doing exactly the same thing when they demand higher standards of team members than they demonstrate themselves. Part of the challenge post-Covid, for employees returning from a WFH habit to coming back to the office, sprang from the fact that several bosses were issuing those very instructions from the comfort of their homes.

Another area where this double standard is inevitably applied is in performance appraisals. Bosses will be rigorous and demanding while doing the appraisals of their subordinates — any pleas about constraints or challenges fall on deaf years and yet when they go for their own appraisals, they will expect a flexible standard and more understanding of their constraints.

The test of real leadership is when leaders are willing not just to apply the same standard but a higher standard to themselves over what they use for others. Then their leadership has credibility, and their example inspires better followership.

Convenience vs conviction

We sometimes see double based on the situation. Often, we justify our wrong decisions or behaviour. As happened with J&J — a decision is made based on the convenience of the situation. Often an imagined good will be used to balance poor decisions and behaviour.

The documentary — The Inventor — shows the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, and behavioural economist Dan Ariely outlines an interesting experiment. Researchers give people a regular six-sided die and they are asked to throw the die. They will get paid money equal to the number that comes up — so $4 for a four and $6 for a six. But they need to pick a side either top or bottom before the throw. They don’t need to tell the researchers what they’ve chosen.

And whatever comes up on their chosen side — top or bottom — so for example, if they’ve chosen top and the top comes up five — they get paid $5. What happens if someone chooses the top and it comes up one and the bottom six —researchers found that people most often would say they’d chosen the bottom because they could get paid the higher amount. Each person threw the dice twenty times, and as Ariely said, “You find that people are extra lucky.”

When connected to a lie detector, it did catch the fact that people were lying. But in an interesting twist to the experiment, people were told that whatever they earned would go to a charity of their choice. What happened? Did people cheat less or more? People cheated more. And the lie detector didn’t even pick that they were cheating. Simply because the moment people were able to justify that they were cheating but for a good cause they no longer saw it as something wrong. There was no longer any tension and hence even the lie detector failed to pick up anything.

Leaders must avoid the trap of justifying seeing double with the end-justifies-the means argument. Convictions must trump convenience.

Saying vs doing

I recall a previous Pope delivering a talk on poverty and simplicity and then walking over in his fur-lined shoes to his waiting Mercedes Benz for the short drive to his helicopter that whisked him away. The irony never struck him. Compare that to Pope Francis who shuns the palatial Papal palace preferring simple living quarters, rides in an ordinary Volkswagen, and mingles with people of all religions, social backgrounds, and beliefs. When he speaks, his authentic living shines through. Young people especially are drawn to him because they know he isn’t seeing double.

But many leaders often see double — they say one thing but practice another. Take the instance of the Make in India logo to symbolise the government’s thrust on making in India. The contract to design it went to Portland, Oregon-based advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy. Again, an irony that appeared to shock no one. I’ve heard of senior business executives at tobacco firms who never touch their own products. It reminded me of a famous drug chieftain castigating a lieutenant: “You sell. You don’t use.”

As Bill Waterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes said at the 1990 commencement speech he gave at Kenyon, MIT: “Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules, and rewards…you will all find your own ethical dilemmas…both personal and professional…but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are.”

Seeing double becomes living double and if we keep at it, we will soon forget who is the real one and who is the double.