Why We Don’t Do What We Say

What happens after that terrific seminar or planning session? Does everything go back to business as usual, or does everyone apply the best of what they learned?

A few years ago, I taught a series of one-day courses for the top 2,000 leaders at one of the world’s most admired companies.

As part of the program, each executive received confidential 360-degree feedback. I asked all of the participants to use that feedback to pick one or two areas for personal improvement, talk with their coworkers about what they were going to change, and ask for suggestions on how they could become more effective leaders. Then they were asked to follow up with co-workers by having short ongoing dialogues to help ensure that this process led to a positive, long-term change in their leadership behavior.

In confidential surveys after the course, almost all of the participants enthusiastically agreed that they were going to do what they were asked to do. A year later, almost 70% of the leaders actually did something related to their commitments. About 30% did absolutely nothing. The good news for the 70% was that their co-workers reported that they had become more effective leaders. As for the 30% who did nothing - well, at least they weren’t seen as getting worse! I suppose that qualifies as good news too. But the do-nothings raise an interesting question.

I have had the opportunity to follow up with the leaders in the 30% category and ask them why they didn’t do what they said they would do. Their answers seldom have anything to do with ethics or integrity. In spite of recent examples of terrible ethics violations, the huge majority of leaders I meet are highly ethical people. They are not liars or phonies. They truly believed that they should change and that this was the “right thing to do.” Their answers usually don’t have anything to do with lack of intelligence or understanding either. They are all very bright people. They not only agreed with what they committed to do, but they also understood what to do and how to do it.

So why didn’t these leaders do what they said they were going to do? Why do we often fail to do what we know we should do?

The answer can be explained by something they tell themselves. It’s something I have told myself for years. I am going to predict that you have told yourself the same thing - maybe often, maybe for years. You may be getting a little skeptical right now. You’re probably thinking, “This guy doesn’t know my mind. What is he talking about?” We will see how accurate my guess is.

The interior monologue sounds something like this. “You know, I am incredibly busy right now. In fact, I feel about as busy today as I have ever felt in my entire life. To be honest, I just feel constantly overcommitted. To be really honest, given what is going on at work and at home, sometimes my life feels a little out of control. But, you see, I am working on some very unique and special challenges right now. I think that the worst will be over in four or five months. After that, I am going to take a couple of weeks off and get organized. I am going to start working on my personal development. Then I am going to start spending more time with my family. I’ll start exercising and eating right. When I do, everything is going to be different - and it won’t be crazy anymore.”

Have you ever told yourself something like that? I have, and so have most of the leaders whom I meet every week. Many of us have been saying this to ourselves for years.

That’s why we haven’t been doing what we know we should be doing. We are waiting until life isn’t crazy. We are waiting until we “have some time.” We are waiting for a day that may never appear.

I have learned a hard lesson trying to help real leaders change real behavior in the real world. There is no “two or three weeks.” Things don’t calm down or slow down. Look at the trend line. There is a good chance that tomorrow is going to be even crazier than today.

So here’s my suggestion. Ask yourself two very hard questions.

First, what change is going to make the biggest, positive difference? And second, what am I willing to change now? Not next week, not next month, not when everything starts to make sense. Now.

Don’t worry so much about everything else.

Just change that.

Life is good.




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