Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Ben Simonton, the author of “Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed”, describes how leaders must be alive to the irrefutable law that actions speak louder than words.

Management would seem to be just another discipline, another area in which a body of knowledge, including theory, has been accumulated.  This knowledge should form the basis for a set of discrete, definable procedures which if followed should yield the desired results.  But "should" never occurs on any day of the week. 

If you want to become an engineer and are willing to invest the time and money, there are a host of universities and colleges that will eagerly commit themselves to the task.  If, after completing your training, you were asked to analyse a mechanical problem, the chances are that you would agree with other engineers as to what the problem was and how to fix it.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of management.  Indeed, if presented with a challenge, the chances of even getting agreement on what the problem is are low, let alone agreement on the solution.

The reason for this inability to agree is that management is not an exact science.  Styles vary considerably and we are encouraged to pick one that suits ourselves, our personality or whatever.  But who would recommend that an engineer approach a problem based on their personality? But somehow when it comes to dealing with people, we want to superimpose our personality and style on the process.  An engineer may prefer flat head screwdrivers to Phillips head screwdrivers, but that preference will be a hindrance if it causes them to try to turn a Phillips head screw with a flat head screwdriver.  The same is true for managing people.

The area of people management is strewn with hundreds of these EXCUSES, such as "I don't like to …" or "I can't bear to …".  We have all heard them.  The actions evaded range from not being able to get up in front of a group to not wanting to counsel a difficult employee, from not wanting to fire someone to not being able to provide support in a time of need.  The Excuses to justify these evasions range from personality to "I don't want to hurt their feelings" to "the moon was blue last night".  There are also many people who would like to blame the sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, religious, consultants and others for their own management errors.  Excuses will always be available to anyone who is looking for them, especially to those who enjoy the permissiveness of the "managing your own way" vogue. But recognize that all of these Excuses are INVALID.

As with machines, Excuses will always limit your success with people, if not cause outright failure.  Listen to yourself using them (we all do) and get as far away in the other direction as possible.

You must not decide what a person should be given based on what you have to give, only on what that person needs.  Throw away your excuses, use common sense and the same logical, methodical approach required to solve technical issues.

The Natural Law

The SCIENCE OF MANAGING PEOPLE IS THE SCIENCE OF LEADERSHIP, pure and simple, no more, no less. Whether or not the Managing Director or boss wants to admit it, the SHIP IS ITS CAPTAIN.  This is what actually happens and the boss has no control over this. They can't stop it, change it, wish or order it away.  It is a natural LAW that operates inexorably and without regard for the human beings involved. The process that results WAITS FOR NO ONE. It just happens day in and day out.

Therefore, no matter what the words are, facial expressions, body language, verbal or written orders, support for subordinates, habits, personality traits, actions or inactions, or other boss behaviors, these are FOLLOWED by most juniors simply because the great majority of them are Followers.  The subordinates become what the boss projects.  If the boss works hard, they tend to work hard.  If the boss has little knowledge of certain things, they have little knowledge of them.  If the boss encourages, they will be encouraged.  If the boss cannot bring himself or herself to do certain things, they will not either.  This sequence is a natural LAW, one that makes the boss either the subordinates' biggest ally, their greatest enemy or something somewhere in between.

The boss, by virtue of appointment, becomes the LEADER, whether great and fearless or tyrannical and unsupportive or whatever.  It is the boss who decides how subordinates will act by choosing his/her own actions.  The boss can, of course, decide NOT TO DECIDE – i.e. the "what they see is what they get" or the "I was the one promoted so I must be OK the way I am" approach.  The first quote represents a "to hell with the subordinates" approach, while the second is the height of arrogance.  I don't mean to seem judgmental about this, but my true desire is to make crystal clear that each boss chooses what their subordinates will be led to do, consciously or unconsciously.  The fact that they will Follow the boss' lead has been preordained!

So! Do we really have a Choice over how we manage people?  We do but it is only a choice of the Value Standards toward which we lead.


If we go to a race track and the horses are in the middle of the race, I am certain we will all be able to agree on which horse is in the lead.  It will always be the horse "in front" of the other horses - the "leader".  The other horses are "following" the "leader".  So leading implies being in a position Followers will try to attain.  Two questions emerge.

1.   In what does the boss (CEO or supervisor) lead?

2.   What do subordinates look to Follow in a workplace?

In my opinion, these two questions are merely different sides of the same coin.  The name of the coin is "Values".  From the boss' view it is his/her leadership, while from the subordinates view it is what they Follow.  It makes no difference which we analyse.

Following or Leading

To start the discussion, recall that more than ninety percent of all subordinates are Followers, people whose behaviour emerges as a result of copying that of others.  This copying process applies to Values as well as to actions.  In the workplace, people want to find out as quickly as possible what is expected of them so they can meet those Standards and thus keep down the hassle, avert possible censure and keep the paychecks coming. Conforming to peer pressure is also a part of this process.  None of these are surprising revelations.

People learn by watching others. Through this process, new employees can very quickly get to act like all the other employees. They check what is happening to others and what is happening on-the-job in terms of normal Values: attitude, cleanliness, industriousness, integrity, honesty, admission of error, knowledge, perseverance, fairness and all of the other ones.  Their brain automatically performs computations and suddenly they know what the Standards are for each.  They have, in effect, translated actual conditions into Value Standards.

So equipped, they begin to use these Standards in their work, STANDARDS for precisely the same VALUES all of us have.  This is the Natural LAW.  Followers do not use their own Value Standards to produce behavior in the workplace.  Only non-followers do that and our goal is to make everyone into non-followers!

So, employees detect the workplace Value Standards and use them to decide how to carry out their work.  If these Standards are high, we fly with the eagles, beat the competition and love our work.  If these Standards are low, we walk with the turkeys, lose to the competition and generally dislike coming to work.  Can the boss afford to leave this situation to the whims of chance?  Can the boss take a chance on which Good or Bad Values are utilised in the conduct of work?

As children we didn’t understand the language of words and could only learn through the language of action, through what people do and their tone of voice and body language.  This develops into a habit and is carried into adult life.  Communicating Values is thus an action oriented process in which each boss must be proficient.  The leader's only recourse is to commit to frequently and clearly communicating only very high Value Standards through the normal management actions of supporting, directing and developing.  Actions speak far louder than words and the real truth is no one listens to words!

Both actions and inactions transmit Value Standards, the latter often being the loudest.  On a scale of 1 to 10, these actions and inactions must repeatedly reflect 8-10 Standards for all Good Values if we expect to have EXCELLENCE in the workplace.

The Boss’ Only Choices

So the boss is the leader and leads in Value Standards, whether he/she wants to or not.  The boss can Choose the direction in which to lead, whether toward the Good or the Bad Value, for example whether toward humility or arrogance.  The boss can also Choose the Standard for that Good or Bad Value.  Making the wrong Choice or Choosing not to make a conscious Choice is to Choose mediocrity or even anarchy.

Leadership is simple. Unfortunately, it has been revered and placed on a high pedestal, supposedly out of reach to most of us common folk.  Some people also question whether concepts such as democracy and equality are compatible with leadership.  Although I shared these concerns for many years, they all disappeared as I developed and practiced the Whats, Whys and Hows of my book.

Changing Workplace Performance

Unfortunately, far too many bosses tend to believe that their job is to give orders.  This consists of Choosing the goals and the visions, directing actions by their employees to get there and then checking for the results.  Bad results simply call for some form of re-direction.

But from the boss' "leadership", their employees have already determined a set of Value Standards which they are using every day in the execution of their tasks.  Let's call these the “HOW TO’S” of doing the job and face up to the fact that they will determine the success or failure of the employee's endeavors.  “HOW TO’S” are how industriously, cooperatively, neatly, cleanly, creatively, enthusiastically, independently, resourcefully, compassionately, qualitatively, confidently, safely and the like.

So if the boss is unhappy with the results which subordinates are achieving, they must change the support and direct management functions so as to communicate higher Value Standards.  Only after these changes lead subordinates to use higher Standards can the boss expect performance improvement.  In effect, subordinates are always waiting for the boss to change before they themselves can change.  An example may shed some light.

Transmitting Values

Bill joins the work force and soon is told by a foreman that the work cannot proceed because he must wait for a part.  So Bill puts his hands in his pockets and WAITS.  The foreman says nothing more.  The next day he is waiting for a welder and so on.  Soon, Bill gets the message that doing nothing is OK as long as there is a good Excuse.  No matter that he could do something else or could figure out what's missing before starting a job and thereby reduce the waiting.

Bill probably didn’t believe he would be paid to stand around doing nothing.  Likewise, Bill would not pay a plumber to fix his own sink if that plumber Chose to stand around doing nothing in Bill's house.  But as a Follower, Bill easily falls into becoming unproductive.  What if Bill was a non-follower and used his own Value Standards to decide his actions? Would he be doing a better job?

There may be a multitude of similar bad influences or low Value Standards being transmitted in the workplace.  Bosses must be able to detect these problems and provide workable solutions to use in changing each and thereby improve the Standard being transmitted for each Value.  Fortunately, a very simple and easy to execute detection procedure is available.

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This article is based on the book “Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed” by Bennet Simonton.  Ben managed people for over 30 years leading four successful turnarounds including a nuclear-powered cruiser and a 1,300 person unionised group in New York City.  Ben now provides leadership coaching and training for executives, managers and supervisors.  His book is available at