“People listen to what we do not to what we say!!!”


Didier Marlier

December 13, 2009

From Disruption to Engagement

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On an intercontinental flight, a senior Citibanker proved me once, that people don’t listen to what we say but to what we do!: “Touch your skull! He said and so did I. Touch your forehead! And so I did, wondering what he was trying to get at… Touch your nose! And did, feeling bored… Touch your neck! He ordered while holding his chin… and I went for my chin too. You see… You didn’t listen to what I said but followed what I did”. The point was taken!

In the months since I started this blog, I received several confidential mails from people working mainly (but not exclusively) in large multinationals. They describe their disappointment at the various change efforts undertaken in their respective organizations. To summarize their positions, I would say that they started by really believing in it, they were supporting it intellectually and emotionally. The change programs were well designed and had been delivered at satisfaction, Board members had taken sizeable amount off their busy agendas to visibly support the program (by joining it for usually good dialogues with the people). Some CEO’s had spectacularly engaged themselves through touching written and face to face communication.

So why weren’t the changes as successful as they could/should have been? When interviewing some of the executives concerned, we could definitely see the sincerity of their intentions.  It is only when we started to listen to the people reporting to them and lower down in the organizations that we found out the most probable cause for disappointment: “They asked us to change, the programs raised a high level of hope and expectations but, rapidly we were confronted to the fact that our executives would not change their style, behaviour nor leadership attitude. They are not really serious about it. How can we change the company when the top guys don’t show any signs of moving?”

Since our youngest age, we have been trained to believe what we see. We all are experts in scrutinizing authority figures to know whether or not Mum or Dad’s threat is to be taken seriously. From childhood we spot the incoherence between the “Do what I say and not what I do” in those who are in charge of our education and respond accordingly. The scheme repeats itself with the “senior leaders” of our organizations. All of us, readers of this blog, are authority figures for people we lead. If our actions are not seen to match our intentions, negative and cynical stories will spread in our organization as we “shoot ourselves in the foot”. It is equally fascinating to note that positive, “flourishing” leadership cultures are those where followers see a strong coherence between the stated intentions and the visible behaviours of their leaders (the good old “Walk the talk”).

Reflecting on this, I suggest that a well inspired effort in whatever change process we undertake (strategic, cultural, organizational or post acquisition) is to reflect before we launch it, with the “significant roles models” of the organization, what are the visible behaviours/leadership brand that will spectacularly and unequivocally prove in the eyes of our followers that we are dead serious about the change… to the point of adapting our own ways of leading.

I hope this will contribute to your thinking during the New Year’s break. We will now let you “off the hook” for a few weeks of well deserved rest. We will resume our blogs in January. If you have any comments/suggestions, they are welcome.

Thanks to all of you who supported us in all possible ways during a rather unusual and challenging 2009 year. 2010 looks like a light at the end of the tunnel!

My partners and I wish you all an inspiring and fulfilling 2010!


  1. Marvin Faure

    I think you are absolutely right Didier, and this may be one of the biggest reasons why otherwise well-planned and executed change efforts don’t reach their objectives. It is extremely hard to see yourself as others see you and even harder to change engrained behaviours, especially when they have worked well in the past. Many if not most executives got to where they are by the force of their personality, reinforced successively as they rise up the levels. It is pretty tough to admit that your behaviour has become counter-productive after years of working well: much easier to deny it and shoot the messenger!
    As you suggest, this usually doesn’t imply a lack of sincerity but rather a genuine blind spot or even a psychological defense mechanism. To overcome this – essential if the change efforts are to be successful – someone has to hold up the mirror to the executives so that (a) they see themselves as they really are, (b) they commit to personal change and (c) they agree to a monitoring system to help them keep on track. The realities of organisational life are such that this usually needs to be done by outsiders.
    Love the blog – have a great Christmas break and look forward to new postings in January!

  2. Gaulia

    People follow behaviours – I have read this in your blog too! The “walk the talk” coherence is also a question of perception: what we do is much louder then what we say. And leaders are in the spotlight – the hole nation, the hole organization and the hole company are looking at them. They are role modelling examples and behaviours. Also, internal communication are just producing more and more information without a chance to make the dialogue really happens inside the companies and that´s why in my opinion acts and facts are much more stronger than words. Who is listening? A few ones. But who is watching, seeing, perceiving? Everybody!
    Great post! Best wishes for the new year!

  3. Tapio Kymalainen

    Very much to the point Didier. Couple of weeks ago I came across interesting research done at MIT related to this. They use sociometric badges to measure communication between people. (http://hd.media.mit.edu/badges/)

    Based on their research using those badges they concluded four different “honest signals”. I’m afraid I can’t now remember all those four, but one is activity level and another is mimicry (you touching your chin instead of neck). I understood that they can be labeled as honest signals because faking those takes cognitive resources that it is not possible to do it sustainably while being engaged in a conversation. Good news then is that if person changes he’s or her’s mindset, honest signals changes as well. I suppose that this is not the case you described in your posting.

    So for managers in a change process it meas that they need to change their mindset in order to have real change happening in organization. Very good writing Didier, it brought me new perspective how to apply this theory of honest signals in practice.




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