There’s More to Walking the Talk Than Walking the Talk

It’s been a few decades now since we first heard that managers needed to “walk the talk”. The basic idea was that anyone could talk-the-walk – tell you what you should do  - but it was an entirely different thing to actually do it – to walk-the-talk – to set the example.

Examples are fine as far as they go. You should make a special effort to practice what you preach; but it doesn’t end there.

You see, the thing is that just because you act in a particular way or exhibit certain behaviours doesn’t mean that others will follow your example. Instead, they will do what works for them.

Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, companies were suddenly confronted with a generation of employees that were willing to forgo promotions in order to spend more time with their families. They went home at five and left unfinished work on their desks. And when suggestions were made that there might be a meeting on Saturday that they were expected to attend, they politely informed everyone else that they wouldn’t be there; that instead they would be attending an event that their kids were in.

We’ve forgotten those days.

It’s not that these people work any less hard than you do. Far from it. It’s simply that their priorities are different from yours, and that’s why there’s more to walking the talk than walking the talk.

Managers have gotten into the habit of believing that if they make their message easy to understand – that is that employees have grasped what it is that they want – that that alone will be enough to garner everyone’s support for whatever it is that they want to do. And the truth is that it won’t do anything of the kind.

People have to share your commitment, too; otherwise, they’ll carry on as before.

 

Years ago, William F Buckley, Jr was a guest on the Dick Cavett Show in the United States. At one point in the discussion, Cavett suggested that Buckley must respect his opinion. Buckley corrected him by saying that he respected Cavett’s right to have one.

Big difference, and the same thing holds true here. People may understand your message and recognise your commitment, but if they don’t share it, then you are pretty much on your own.

Think, for example, of your typical organisational change programme. Did you know that well over half of them fail?

Why is that?

It’s because for one reason or another the people who have been asked to change have decided not to. Plain and simple.

They understand that you want them to.

They may even see you change the way you do things.

They may even lose money through strikes or redundancy as a result of resisting you.

The simple truth, however, is that if they don’t share your commitment, then nothing you do will change their minds.

 

So, what can you do to get people to share your commitment?

It comes back to that age-old question: “What’s in it for me?”

And you already know that promising more money often isn’t the issue.

Shared values aren’t enough either. The problem with values is that they overlook the fact that motives can be contradictory. In other words, you and they can work toward the same ends, but for different reasons.

Suppose, for example, that you’ve decided to redecorate the offices and other workspaces in your building. You give people a small budget and a blank wall, and then invite them to buy a variety of test pots to see how the colours will look. Everyone gets really excited about this, each imagining that they will be able to personalise their work area.

You take a vote on the colours, and then invite everyone to a GI party. (That’s an American military euphemism for a housekeeping day in which everyone is expected to attend, usually on a day that you would expect to be off.)

You assure everyone that they will receive overtime pay or given extra time off and then set a date.

What do you suppose will happen when people discover that they won’t be able to personalise their work area; that instead, they will be painting all the walls around their desk in magnolia, and that it will look exactly like all the other cubicles and offices in the building? Do you think that you’ll still have the same enthusiastic commitment that you did before?

You’re dreaming if you do.

Why is that?

It’s because your employees had expected to be able to paint their space in a colour of their choosing; not yours. In other words, they shared your commitment for as long as they believed that they had the authority to customise their work area. Once they realised that that was not the case, their commitment waned.

There wasn’t anything in it for them. It was all about you, and now they knew it.

It’s important, too, that you don’t confuse support for the changes you make to internal structures and policies with commitments. Changing those things may help people to see that you’re committed to the new outcome that you want, but these are nothing more than a means to an end.

They are not an end in themselves. And so it’s unreasonable to suppose that simply by changing things like that that that will be enough to get people to support your other objectives.

Another way to look at this is to say that it’s not what they were looking for. The what’s-in-it-for-me was something else.

Can you see the flaw in the logic? Just because you do something doesn’t mean that others will. Just because people share your values, doesn’t mean that they share your commitment.

 

In statistics, there is a concept called covariance. It simply means that when one thing happens, then another thing happens. It’s not that one thing causes the other to happen. It’s only that the two change simultaneously. They could both change positively or negatively; or they could act in opposite directions. When one thing improves, the other gets worse.

The same thing is in operation here. You may get a measure of commitment and cooperation for awhile; but unless what’s-in-it-for-them is what they’re looking for, it won’t last.

 

What’s another way of describing what’s-in-it-for-them (or -me)? It’s answering the question, “Why?”

“Why?”

Studies have shown that if people are given a good reason, and they are the final arbiters of that, then they will step up to the plate and do what you ask. In other words, they’ll make a commitment. And they’ll keep that commitment because the reason why is now important to them.

Managers err when they focus on the “how”. The “how” will follow the “why”; but it won’t happen the other way around.

If people have a reason why to do something, a “why” that matters to them, then they’ll figure out how to make it happen. 

As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention”.

When you give people a reason “why” that is important to them, you are doing more than walking-the-talk. You are also leading them to answer their question: “What’s in it for me?”

When the reason why is important to them, then they will know in the hearts what they will get out of it.

You don’t have to tell them. They will figure it out for themselves.

 

 

If you need ideas to improve authentic management and leadership or your internal communications then email me here for an initial free chat

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