Workplace Reality #9: What leaders say can be very different than what they mean

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #9: “What leaders say can be very different than what they mean“. This reality should be interpreted as the gap between speech and intent, or speech and action (because intent is what is acted upon).

Why speech-action gap

There are 3 primary reasons this happens.

Justifying hard-to-justify acts

Leaders, like everyone else, need to justify their acts, esp. if they do things that seem odd or unfair to an employee or a group. For example, when a critical employee wants to leave, a leader may offer him/her disproportionately (and unfairly) high salary to keep and meet the organization goals, at least for the short-term. When being asked about this situation, they may say things which will cause speech-action gap.

Handling information flow restriction

Information flow in an organization is restricted by design – things a leader knows aren’t always things he/she can say. In these situations, leader may end up saying things which aren’t backed up by action or subsequent events. For example, the company may be looking to acquire a company to replace their existing product. However, the leader may not want to rock the boat by telling the employees working on existing product about this, even though he will be acting with this knowledge. This will result in a speech-action gap.

Lack of self-awareness

Sometimes, the leader doesn’t realize that his speech doesn’t match his action. For example, managers know that micro-managing is a bad idea, but some of the managers don’t realize that their own style is that of micro-managing (in the eyes of their team members at least). This is due to lack of self-awareness.

How to deal with speech-action gap

Just relying on the words spoken by the leader can mislead you. For example, the leader may ask employees to come forward and air their grievances about the new policy. However, when you do bring it up, the leader ends up pushing really hard to justify the policy. Following what Ralph Waldo Emerson said is a great advice to deal with this situation: “What you do is so loud in my ears that I cannot hear what you say” – only listen to what the leader does, ignore (or at least don’t give much importance to) what they say. For example, if the leader doesn’t answer candidly to questions in meetings, don’t get misled when he talks about transparency and information sharing.

This concludes this long-running series on 9 realities of modern workplace. I look forward to your feedback on this post and the series.


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