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.


Organization Politics – Tactics and other takeaways

This is the final post in the series about Organization Politics. In the first post Organization Politics – Truth or Myth, we presented some examples of situations which might be termed ‘political’ and proceeded to analyze these situations in more detail in the next post Organization Politics – Anatomy of Office Politics. In the last post Organization Politics – Dealing with Politics, we presented some strategies of dealing with politics at workplace and reasons why it is a good idea to deal with them rather than walk away from it. In this post, we will wrap this up with a discussion on what you need to do in various roles you play in a decision-making situation.

As we talked in the previous post, it is important to engage with political situation, it helps the organization as well as your career. We also presented a high level framework for dealing with such situations. In this post, let me get into the details of tactics you can use to handle politics by applying the framework.

Whenever you engage with a decision-making situation, you are in one of these 3 different roles:

  • Observer/Recipient – You are not part of decision-making team and you have to live with the decision. Usually this happens when some high-level organization-wide decisions are being taken, like reorganization, new goals for the organization, etc. This also happens when you choose not to be a participant.
  • Participant – Your input is solicited but you are not the decision-maker for the decision. This is the most common scenario when you either choose to walk away or engage fully.
  • Decision-maker – You are primary (or one of) decision-makers for the decision. This is the case when you are a leader or manager.

For each of these roles, there are actions that need to be taken in 3 phases: before decision-making happens, during decision-making, and after decision has been made.

Let’s see how each of these roles should be handled.


When you are an observer, your goal should be to understand the decision (and its implication) as early as you can, as well as learn from the experience of others. It is important to understand the decision and its implication to your work, otherwise you will not be able to adapt to it in time, and sometimes it can cause significant issues. For example, if a reorganization within your business unit merges 2 groups into one, it is important to know the new leaders/influencers who are close to decision-makers and understand their priorities, otherwise you may be spending late nights on some project that is not considered important by them and which is likely to be cut.

Before decision-making
  • Understand the context and the problem to be solved
  • Identify decision-makers and influencers
  • Try and stay close to one of the decision-makers or influencers
  • Create your own hypothesis of what the final outcome should be
During decision-making
  • Get to know the discussions as they unfold
  • Make attempts to influence the outcome
After decision-making
  • Read up on all written material available about the decision
  • Talk to as many participants as you can
  • Compare final outcome with your hypothesis to explain the difference if any


When you are a participant, your primary goal should be to be in the best position to influence the decision and then proceed to do so in an ethical manner. You should also be in a position to justify your actions after the decision has been taken, so it is important to stay consistent and transparent, as much as possible.

Before decision-making
  • Understand the context around the problem
  • Talk to other decision-makers and influencers to understand their positions
  • Identify potential allies
  • Prepare to present and defend your proposal
During decision-making
  • Understand others’ points of view and self-interests
  • Create coalition with like-minded decision-makers/influencers
  • Present inclusive solutions and use your influencing techniques
After decision-making
  • Clearly articulate your position during decision-making discussions to those who want to know.
  • Discuss with observers/recipients to understand their reaction and understanding
  • Compare final outcome with your proposal and study the differences


When you are a decision-maker, your primary goal is to convey the sense that the decision will be taken by involving right stakeholders, using a well-known decision-making process, and will be in the best interests of the organization, and then adhere to it.

Before decision-making
  • Identify right stakeholders to be included in the decision-making process
  • Clarify how the final decision will be made (consensus, majority, etc.)
  • Create your own viewpoint about the decision but stay open for feedback
During decision-making
  • Understand others’ points of view and self-interests
  • Make the process inclusive by making sure everyone participates actively
  • Use your listening techniques to gather the most out of discussions.
  • Make final decision using the process identified before
After decision-making
  • Clearly articulate decision made and rationale behind it
  • Encourage participants and observers to learn more about the decision
  • Compare final outcome with your initial point of view and study the differences

When you are seen as ‘playing politics’

In spite of your best intentions and efforts, if you are a participant or decision-maker in a decision-making process, you may be labeled as ‘political’. This can undermine your personal brand and damage your credibility. Best thing to do in these circumstances is to over-communicate. Two things need to be communicated, using multiple channels ((emails, blog, videos, podcast, meetings, etc.) and multiple times:

  • Decision-making Process: Make sure people understand how the participants were selected, how were options generated and brainstormed, how were options compared and final option selected, etc. Understanding of the process helps give a sense of comfort and fairness.
  • Rationale for the decision – Communicate why this is the most optimal decision made under the circumstances. Everyone has their own version of ‘best’ decision, and it is important to share all the inputs that went into making decisions so that people can make a more informed assessment of ‘best’.

Key Takeaways

Frequently, you will participate in (or observe) a situation where you think you are being exposed to ‘politics’. It is tempting to say ‘this is politics’ and bail out of the situation, rather than take it on and learn to handle them. If nothing else, these are worth engaging because of the wealth of learning to be gained:

  • Discovering self-interests that drive stakeholders in a situation
  • Create inclusive solutions by focusing on AND of multiple viewpoints rather than get into debates about best viewpoint
  • Deal with difficult people and tough conversations
  • Make complex decisions with incomplete information and multiple right answers
  • Critical communication and listening skills

An organization is a complex system. It achieves optimal results when multiple perspectives (and interests) intersect and a collective, and best-for-the-organization decision is made. If people walk away from these conflicting situations citing politics as a reason (rightly or wrongly), organization suffers and gets destroyed in the long run.

It is best for the individual (great learning) and organization (best decisions) when individuals engage with complex situations (termed ‘political’ many times) and give their best.

Don’t get me wrong: Workplace politics is a real thing. When senior leaders have only self-interest in mind (and no thought about organizational goals), situations can turn messy and unmanageable. This is the office politics that you should be wary of, especially if you are not the political kind. However, situation is not always so bleak. What I am pushing back on is really the pseudo-politics that we think we are victims of – I want us to buckle up and handle it successfully.

Comments and suggestions on this series are most welcome and much appreciated.