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Leadership and Shifting Baseline Syndrome


The term Shifting Baseline Syndrome describes the acceptance of changes in baseline measures in a system over time. This syndrome masks or distorts reality. An ecologist who takes key measures of an ecosystem at one point and time and references those as her baseline for research, masks the prior deterioration or changes in the ecosystem. As new baselines are established over time, people become blind to the deterioration going on in the system.

I see a form of Shifting Baseline Syndrome manifest in leadership behaviors as well as in our personal and professional lives.

Instead of doing the right thing or the difficult thing, we shift the baseline.

It’s only 5 extra pounds. Until it’s 20. And then 40.

I have pictures of myself that are horrifying, yet I don’t recall worrying much about my shifting baseline (or waistline) while it was happening. I just bought larger clothes and continued merrily along on my path.

In our organizations, once an ethical gray zone is crossed, the baseline shifts to tolerate decisions and actions that previously would be deemed wrong or inappropriate.

The open-door policy is open for some people and closed for others.

A company’s values are relevant as long as they are the foundation of actions and behaviors. They define not only expectations but what’s acceptable. Once actions and behaviors that reflect a lesser interpretation of the values are tolerated, the baseline shifts for everyone.

People spend a great deal of mental energy tolerating or trying to survive incompetent, uncaring supposed leaders. Our personal baselines shift on what we accept as appropriate behavior from those in charge.

Our personal performance baseline standards are often subject to this syndrome.

Once you allow your baseline on your performance standards to shift in the wrong direction, you’ve lost.

If you lead, it’s time to shift the baseline in the right direction.

  • Expect more of yourself and hold yourself accountable.
  • Show that you care.
  • Keep the darned door open. For everyone.
  • Give trust, don’t demand that people earn it first.
  • Flex and accept and leverage differences.
  • Reset ethical boundaries to be right or wrong, not maybe.
  • Study the values and apply them consistently, every day.
  • Ask yourself, at the end of our time working together, what will they say that I did? And then do it.

And finally, reset your personal baselines in the right direction on health, weight, and performance.

I just donated all of the fat clothes. That’s one important baseline shifted in the right direction.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.

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