Why “Do What I Say” Doesn’t Apply to Business

December 17, 2018

Nearly all of us have asked our parents or guardians questions about a chore or a task. Usually in the form of “Why?” asked ad nauseum, with a “but YOU didn’t do it that way!” for good measure. Then, you finally got the dreaded response, “Do what I say, not what I do.” That never made sense to us. Did they get to behave differently because they were our parents? Because they were smarter? Or simply because they were adults? And why was their behavior acceptable when my doing THE EXACT SAME THING was not? There’d been a complete disconnect between words and actual observed behavior.


This misalignment challenges our growth through experiential learning. In other words, you learn not to touch a hot stove when you feel the extreme heat and experience pain, not simply because someone told you not to (although that helps to a certain extent). What if you were always told not to touch a hot burner, but when you did, nothing happened? The experience contradicts the directions; therefore, you are likely to be less cautious the next time the same situation presents itself. Your actions have been informed by your experience.

When information someone tells us turns out to be contrary to the experience, it creates questions. Is it me? Did I misunderstand? Were they telling the truth? Do they really know what they are doing? Are they just trying to hurt me, hinder my success, take credit, point blame?

This same phenomenon occurs with your professional relationships—teams, committees, colleagues, etc. As people, we pay much more attention to actions than to words. And when those don’t match…

Trust begins to erode.

Organizations have toted values and beliefs like:

  • People are our greatest asset
  • If you aren’t failing, you are not making decisions—take some risks
  • Integrity is non-negotiable—the price of entry

These are the platitudes that are put on websites and t-shirts. They are plastered on booths at trade shows and recruiting events. And people become intrigued. Then they experience the organization through the hiring process or through time spent there once employed. They may research the organization through Glassdoor, to find the experiences of others have been completely different. And these differences are a direct result of the leadership practices in the organization.

When you treat people as if they have no choice but to work for you, you SHOW employees that people are NOT your greatest asset. (That whole “people as assets” thing is a topic for another time.)

When you ask employees to take calculated risks, but reduce their bonus, stall their career, or outright fire them upon failure, you SHOW your employees that you do not really value risk-taking.

When you say integrity is non-negotiable, yet reward those who exhibit horrid behavior “because they are so smart” or “they have been here so long”, you SHOW employees that integrity doesn’t matter.

You create a negative culture out of the unintended consequences of the disconnect between your words and your actions. In the examples above, you get surprised by the turnover of great employees who leave for places that truly value their work. You hinder innovation and growth, because employees wait for perfection or direction (pushing decisions up that should be made at the lowest possible level) before executing. You create a culture of survival and self-preservation above all else.

One of the clearest examples of this occurs during the budgeting process. Every business, committee or function that deals with money does some sort of budgeting. In larger organizations, there is usually a budget “season” when everyone has to submit a time-focused budget that will be rolled into the overall company budget. Organizations and functions say, “Make your budget real.” In other words, explain what you will really make and what you will really spend. Unfortunately, in the roll-up the organization comes back and says, “Great work, but we still need everyone to cut their budget by 15% (or whatever amount the powers that be have determined is critical to meet the expectations of those holding them accountable for a number).”

The disconnect? The WORDS, in essence, said be truthful and realistic. The ACTIONS said, you better pad your budget so when it gets cut you can still function. The actions have the unintended consequence of a lack of integrity in the process. Those who know the unwritten “rules” pad their budgets leading to an overall “larger” budget. Those who do not now have to cut to the quick to meet the budget—which means making hard, sometimes employee-impacting decisions. The ones who knew the rules say this always happens, and they are less frustrated and more resigned to the insanity of it all. Those who didn’t know and operated cleanly not only become frustrated, they could become disillusioned. And that in addition to less than satisfactory discussions with supervisors about the realism in the initial budget submission, creates an employee who has lost trust in the organization and may become a flight risk.

So…what culture do you want to create?

  • I want a culture where I can trust my team to do what is needed, and they can trust me to have their back. If you want this culture as well, what do you do to foster it?
  • Encourage open conversation and clarity around goals and deliverables.
  • Be a transparent leader. Tell your team something to this effect: “My expectation is that we meet the deadlines that we agreed upon. I know there are times when things happen that are beyond our control. While you should still focus on meeting the deadline, if there is a significant risk to doing so, please, give me a heads up EARLY so we can make a plan B and manage expectations for ourselves and our customers/clients.” Afterward, when they come to you (assuming it’s not out of laziness or negligence on their part), be open and non-combative and listen to them.
  • Stand firmly in your position as the leader, between your team and more senior leaders. If there is an issue, your colleagues should bring it to you first to address directly with your team. And then you should address it.
  • Be a person of your word.

I want people to make decisions. If I must make every decision as the leader, then I have the wrong team. To create a culture of participation and initiative among your colleagues/team members, you should:

  • Communicate and discuss decisions to be made.
  • Be clear on the overall goal and direction, but be flexible in the method(s) towards an achievement.
  • Even if you don’t agree with the exact process unless there is a valid reason to stop it, support your team in doing things their way. You may be pleasantly surprised by the outcome!

Much of the culture comes down to clear expectations supported by congruent behavior. People will live up or down to your expectations. If you expect them to be dependent, lack integrity, incapable of thinking/acting strategically, then that is what you will get.

Be knowledgeable about what you are asking for and why. For example, when approving expense reports in various roles, I insisted on my direct reports using the comment section to explain expenditures. If that wasn’t done, I sent them back. Why? Because I was a raving witch and had nothing better to do? No (at least not always ☺). In actuality, I’m an ex-internal auditor who had significant experience workin in and with great and not so great Internal Audit departments. Some of these Internal Audit teams had a tendency to reject valid expenses because they (1) didn’t understand, (2) thought there was a policy violation, or (3) just didn’t have a good grasp on materiality and compliance concepts. So, my team learned to use the comment fields and the T&E audit of the department was flawless. Know the WHY of your requirements and be able to explain it to the team, connecting it to outcomes.

Be aware of unintended consequences of your actions. I believe in hiring good people and trusting them to do their job. I am open to discussions of topics that lead to good decisions, and heated discussions are not an issue. I have no pride of authorship and believe that the best decisions are made with a diversity of input. My leadership preference is collaboration. I also have a low tolerance for revisiting a topic multiple times with no action and can move to an authoritarian style in the face of inaction. There are those on various teams I’ve lead that needed more direction from me. Since I was not one that needed lots of direction and truly didn’t care for words of affirmation at work, my tendency was to forget that others needed both. Even now, it is easy for me to forget this when hiring experienced leaders who “already know this stuff” but may not know how to operate in a new culture. This means that my words of appreciation and trust were contrary to my actions of solitude and schedule inaccessibility.

What are your words and actions saying? Are you telling people to do something that is contrary to the behavior you exhibit? Have you asked? If the answer to that last question is ‘no’, then it sounds like you have a bit of homework to do. Find someone you trust and ask these questions. Listen intently to the answers, then act. Your continued success and the difficulty thereof may depend on your ability to understand, acknowledge and act upon what you hear.

That’s the Rutledge Perspective™. Where have you seen disconnects between words and actions? What was the impact? What are your suggestions?

#therutledgeperspective #welcometomyvillage

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