Every successful author writer learns this key concept that C-suite executives would do well to apply to their everyday business interactions: show, don’t tell. Applied to business interaction and management, the concept doesn’t refer to using active verbs whenever possible; it refers to the old axiom that actions speak louder than words. Another truism: good leaders model the behavior they want their employees to emulate. It’s the old “monkey see, monkey do” principle. The capacity to lead requires traits like integrity and decisiveness. To inspire people to follow you, you must demonstrate that you’re worthy of their trust and earn their respect.
Lisa Martin’s article “Defining Leadership: Actions Speak Louder than Words,” offers four levels of leadership that graduate from being put into a leadership position and offered the opportunity to lead to gaining the respect and trust of people because you demonstrate that you have their best interests at heart to mentoring people because their success does not threaten you. Good leaders do not succumb to their insecurities.
The potency of action shows your commitment to the best interests of those who work for you and the clients for whom you work. That commitment shows up as ethical behavior, not as motivational posters that give lip service to virtue. “Your business ethics will be tested throughout your journey as an entrepreneur, and the way in which you react to situations and problems will determine your reputation as a company. It’s important to set your standards from the start,” writes David Ingram in his article “6 Tips on Building an Ethical Company: Ethics Speak Louder than Words.” He adds, “Good quality relationships built on respect and trust—not necessarily agreement, because people need to spark off each other—are the single most important determinant of organizational success.”
The behavior modeled at the top rungs of the corporate ladder set the tone for the entire company. While the company’s employee manual may specify certain types of responsibilities, actions, and values—and these do need to be clearly communicated to ensure a common level of understanding—if management won’t follow the rules, then labor cannot be expected to do so. This is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than at the retail counter.
Consider the following true scenario: A customer demanded to return and receive a refund for a fully functional coffee maker that he’d purchased six months earlier and used. The clerk denied the return; however, the department supervisor accepted it and refunded the cost. There were two primary consequences. First, the customer learned that company policy did not apply to the customer. Second, every clerk in the store learned that the company for which they worked was dishonest and did not support its employees. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the negative consequences resulting from those lessons learned.
The upshot is that actions have consequences. The action of leadership affects employees’ perceptions in their workplace. In their article “Actions Speak Louder than Words: CEO Conduct that Counts,” authors Melanie Sanders, Meredith Hellicar, and Kathryn Fagg conclude their research with the following statement: “The bottom line: Employees are canny observers of reality rather than rhetoric.” To extract the best from your employees and to earn your clients’ respect, we’ll end with another axiom: Practice what you preach.
The Golden Rule is alive and well in business today, despite increasing opportunities afforded by modern technology to lie, cheat, and steal. With constant exhortations to verify references and perform background checks, it’s become even more important than ever to mean what you say and do what you say you will do.
Margaret Paul, Ph.D. explores first the reasons why a person makes promises and doesn’t keep them, often using excuses like, “I forgot” or “I’m afraid I won’t do it correctly.” She breaks those reasons down into two categories:
1. Fear of disappointment. Basically, one agrees to do something so as not to disappoint the person making the request.
2. Resistance to control. One resents being controlled and rebels against that control by not doing whatever one agreed to do.
Paul suggests that the tug-and-pull of requesting tasks from someone who agrees and does not perform those tasks sets up a power struggle that cannot end until one of the parties takes responsibility for himself (or herself), “rather than trying to control the other or resist being controlled.”
In her article “5 Reasons to Do What You Say You Will Do,” Paul lists those five reasons why keeping one’s word holds such importance: integrity, trust and reliability, respect, self-worth, and personal power. No school of business teaches these traits; however, they’re just as important–if not more important–than knowing how to manipulate a spreadsheet or analyze a process. If your clients cannot trust you, you can be sure they won’t refer to colleagues and they might damage your already shaky reputation further by warning colleagues against you.
Honesty and integrity build customer loyalty. Keeping your word means not promising what you cannot deliver. The American Management Association states, “When individuals and companies don’t deliver on their brand promises, they fail to create or maintain uniqueness in their brand categories. That translates to a lack of brand loyalty among your customers. That means they’re just as likely to buy someone else’s widget over yours.” The last thing your company should do is over-promise and under-deliver.
That respect for your clients and customers must also translate into like respect for your employees. Employees who suffer from management’s broken promises and lies turn in lackluster performances until they find employment elsewhere.
The failure to do what you say you will do often results from an inability to tell people “No” or a habit of telling people what they want to hear because doing so sets up unrealistic expectations. Mark S. Putnam’s article “Ethical Communications: Keeping Your Promises” puts it bluntly: “Take the issue seriously, call it lying, and resolve that you will not do it.”
To help yourself to break that habit, you may need to post reminders about what you will say. Rehearse what you will say when you feel the urge to capitulate to requests so that you can explain the circumstances of your refusal. Don’t obfuscate. Be clear and straightforward.
“Remember that your words have meaning. People take what you say at face value. Being clear in what you say doesn’t just make you look more intelligent and in tune with the situation,” writes Putnam. And when you do fail, take your lumps and remember that only honesty can save the relationship.