Sunday, 19 April 2015 09:21

Watch the walk before believing the talk

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I have a client whose chief executive has been talking up a strategic change. He has adopted a set of words to encapsulate, explain and encourage the change. He uses them a lot. If you listen to the words of the CEO everything will soon be profoundly different from the way they are now.

The words imply change. Radical change. As someone who spends his life helping organizations with change, I am interested in these words.


But my interpretation is that little is going to happen. The reason? When I observe behaviour there is no support or real drive to change. No responsibilities, budgets, targets or performance measures have been altered to align to the messages the CEO is giving. Nothing has been re-prioritised or de-prioritised. Everyone is still behaving in the same way on a day-to-day basis, and people get praised or admonished for the same things. Behaviour does not match the words - everyone is still walking the same walk.

When you are trying to interpret such a situation, believe the behaviours. By all means keep note of the words, try to understand why the CEO or anyone else is using them, but don’t get too excited that everything is about to change just because of the communications. Going further – unless you are capable of motivating the whole organization, avoid sticking out your neck to support a change when no-one’s behaviour aligns with it, not even the CEOs.

In this case, the CEO is no a fool. Perhaps for political reasons he is trying to keep a group happy with his words. Maybe he is setting the ground for change at a later date, but not yet. These are just hypotheses. I don’t really know why the CEO is talking like this. But I am pretty sure nothing much is going to happen as a result of his pronouncements until something changes with behaviour too.

How words miscommunicate

When we communicate we don’t just talk about the world around us, we speak about communications, beliefs and intentions. We say things like “I understand”, “I agree”, “I’ll do that” or “let’s change”.

When we hear these phrases we usually take it for granted that the person speaking means what they say. In the philosophy of language there is a description for this, it is called the “Principle of Charity”. In essence, this says that we should accept that speakers are rational and their words really describe their intentions and beliefs. We have to accept the Principle of Charity most of the time otherwise everyday communication would fail.

But we all know that words can mislead. Twitter is a great example where words mislead. I follow people if their tweets are interesting, informative or amusing. Many people I follow, I only know through Twitter.

It’s easy to start forming an image people from their tweets alone. In fact, as this is the only data I have, I find it difficult not to form images of their personality from their tweets. But my impressions are almost certainly flawed.

Take one person I follow. I followed him for a while before I started a train of longer emails with him about books and writing. On Twitter he comes across as biting and sarcastic, albeit an interesting biting sarcasm. I assumed he was a biting and sarcastic person. Yet his emails show a much gentler person. The biting sarcasm is just a persona he adopts for Twitter. Through emails I have got to know him better. To understand him better still, I need to observe his behaviour.

I doubt he is the only person whose personality has been misrepresented because only a few words were available.

Words educate, excite and empower …

I am not saying words don’t count. Words matter immensely. I would not be an author if I did not believe this. Words have a profound impact on every aspect of our life. We would not be human with all the wonderful things that entails without words. Words allow us to share, educate, befriend, create, love, amuse, coach, encourage, motivate, excite and empower.

Words are an enormous driver of behaviour. Think of slogans - we have all experienced power and influence of a great slogan.

But words are not the only or even the best way to understand the intentions of the speaker. If anything, words are too easy. Anyone can deliberately, and almost certainly at times will unintentionally, mislead with their words. Of course, the same is true with behaviour, but it is less likely. It is difficult to consistently behave in a way that is unaligned with our underlying beliefs and intentions.

Behaviour is more reliable indicator of beliefs and intentions than words.

This is not a reason for universal scepticism about people’s language. We must adopt the “Principle of Charity” that people generally mean what they say mean otherwise we will get lost in doubt and over analysis of every statement we hear. But when it is really important that you have a high degree of confidence that you know someone else’s level of understanding, degree of belief or intention – check that their behaviours align with their words.

… behaviour demonstrates intentions

When you want to understand if someone else really understands, agrees or supports you – or if they really want to drive the change they are espousing, look for supporting behaviour. If the behaviour does not align with the words, you have strong grounds for doubt. When you need to choose, generally behaviour will provide a greater route to understanding those you interact with than words.

When it comes to organizations this is even more important. Yes, listen to the words used in an organization. Through this you will learn how people communicate and if you want to have influence in that organization, it helps to use similar terminology and concepts. But if you want to really understand what is important in the organization explore priorities, budgets, performance targets, reward systems – and observe actions and behaviours. These will tell you far more than words alone do. A change in words may be superficial. Only a change in behaviour is real change.

If you are involved in organizational change and are getting stuck, close your ears for a while. Ignore all the words you hear buzzing around. Look at the behaviour. When you do this you are much more likely to find the reason you are getting stuck. From that you will be in a better position to work out the way forward.


This article was first published on Linkedin and in the Malaysian newspaper The Star.

Read 5089 times Last modified on Monday, 20 April 2015 18:40
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at Information about his company can be found at His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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