Clarity: Your actions speak so loudly, Part 2

reflection of manakinLast post we discussed being honest with yourself and whether you see yourself clearly. The next logical question then is, “do you understand how the world sees you?” Understanding our own motivations, actions, successes and missteps is important. We often fail to understand or forget how powerful a message we are sending through our actions. To repeat Mr. Emerson, “your actions speak so loudly, that I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

My father used to observe that as a leader, he couldn’t see into people’s hearts. All he could see was what they did. I think that’s exactly right. His point was that trying too hard to discern “intent” or “the content of people’s hearts” can be really challenging.

He was also making a point my basketball and soccer coaches would make; “follow their hips not their heads”, meaning their head might be faking, but their hips show where they’re really going. In the end we are seen by others as what we do both overtly and subtly, not necessarily what we say.

A few high level observations I would make based on 20+ years of work, coaching and leading hundreds of people:

1 – All I really know about you is what I can see from what you share (consciously and unconsciously).

2 – How others perceive you is critical to your personal and professional success.

3 – Perceptions once set are hard to change.

4 – If you are trying to change a perception, it takes time repetition and communication to drive it.

I was just discussing our school’s emerging leadership development program and its likely use of 360 feedback, assessments and other tools with the Chief Learning Officer at a F500 firm. This friend and colleague has led the assessment and career development of an entire generation of corporate leaders, winning industry awards along the way. In discussing a recent pilot we ran at school, he commented on the challenge some folks have in accepting feedback they disagree with. It’s often a function of their lack of sensitivity as to how others see them. It becomes a “derailer” for many. In the context of leadership, understanding how others see you is critical. If you don’t have that sense of your perception (it’s hip to say your “brand” these days), then you can’t manage it.

Here are a few examples of how perception of you can drive outcomes. Whether they are positive or negative depends on how you are perceived. Remember, we are talking about whether you are perceived to have done these things.


When people feel you have: When people feel heard they attribute all sorts of positive qualities to you. Even if in the end you disagree. It’s an essential part of team formation and achieving a positive community that is engaged. I’ve written before about “getting the benefit of the doubt“. Good listeners who are thoughtful often get it as people don’t make immediate leaps to character flaws if there’s a bone of contention.

When people feel you haven’t: Unheard people are unhappy people. They assume you are uninterested, unpleasant, arrogant or some other regrettable attribution. This isn’t how to win hearts or minds or build any level of trust.

Where’s the gap? If you are not perceived the way you want to be it is important to determine the root cause and develop an action plan for addressing it. And remember that any change in perception takes time and demonstrated change.

Personally, listening has been a lifelong struggle for me. I grew up in the Northeast in a “verbal” family. I was also very confident (putting it politely) in my opinions. I also process my thinking out loud, making me annoying at multiple layers. I’m not only blurting, but my opinion is changing as I do. Brutal.

This makes me a challenge for most folks who know me. My Uncle used to say I was “often wrong, but never in doubt.” I think it’s better than it used to be, but it’s still a challenge every day. The actual and perceived lack of listening has caused me problems and likely cost me friends and opportunities along the way. I never, ever intended to be telling the world “your ideas and feelings don’t matter to me”. Because they actually did. But my style was very off putting. A certain level of talent and ability carried me through, but there was breakage and a looming derailment.

It took a supportive boss at Ernst & Young (thank you Brian) to pull me aside and make a major point to me about this in my late 20s. He essentially said “fix it”. Very directly. So I have tried. He was able to very clearly articulate a 360′ view of how I was seen. The fair and clear picture forced me to re-assess. There was no specific a ha!, but I adopted simple strategies like (literally) timing gaps between when I spoke in meetings to make sure I wasn’t over-contributing and consciously deflecting discussion to others to broaden the dialogue in meetings. It’s a journey…

Following Through

When people feel you do: Fundamentally, do people have faith that you’ll do what you said you would? Secondarily, is what you do timely and well done? Personally and professionally “reliability” is one of the more important traits you can show. When you show a consistent habit of delivering high quality work on time and reasonably done, then you usually get more freedom and trust is high.

When people feel you don’t: This breaks trust and delivers the message that your commitment to them or the team isn’t important. It also makes it a challenge to convince folks to give you more responsibility, cooler assignments or a raise.

Where’s the gap? If there’s a gap for you, what’s the problem? Are you too busy? Do you have a problem saying “no”? Do you really not care? Any of these or other underlying causes may be at work. But if you want the perception to change, you have to manage it with stakeholders. They can’t see all that you have on your plate. Just that you didn’t get them what they needed and you said you would.

At a session many years ago, famed executive coach Marshall Goldsmith made a powerful point that resonated with me. For people to perceive a change in you, you have to visualize and remind them of the change. To do this you need A) a plan that you follow through on but as or more importantly B) to ask for feedback along the way. This forces your colleagues to stop, reflect and process whether you have changed. Without this, they will likely overlook positive change as it doesn’t fit with their mental model of you.

Concern for Others

When you show it: People are engaged. They believe you have their interests at heart and have a sense of values that extends beyond your own self-interest. This builds trust, or at least confidence and loyalty. It also earns you the benefit of the doubt in many situations. If people believe you are in their corner, they will tend to also go out of their way for you.

When you don’t show it: People who are out for themselves do not build support. They also don’t build themselves much benefit of the doubt.

Where’s the gap? So are you perceived as showing concern? If not, why not? Do you not make team events? Do you fail to ask about people’s personal life? Do you try to take undue credit? You’ll need to self-assess whether you really aren’t interested.

I would note that there is a difference between “showing concern” and being “soft” or “personable”. A wide range of personalities and styles can show concern as long as people perceive it.

A mentor of mine was once responsible for conducting a significant layoff in a business unit he led. In this case, showing concern didn’t manifest itself as not conducting the layoff. The business conditions had changed and required a significant realignment. To let the situation drift would have been irresponsible and not served the remaining employees, customers and company well.

Showing concern here meant handling the layoffs directly and with care. My colleague was always transparent and clear. True to his word. He also stayed in close contact with those laid off, going well beyond the baseline of services our company offered. He activated his personal network for those who needed it in the job searches. He was able to speak to almost everyone’s status on a regular basis and didn’t treat those who were gone as though they were dead, which is often the case in these situations. As a result, he maintained a very strong sense of team with the remaining employees as they knew it wasn’t just about him (or the company).

So remember to take some time and try to see yourself through others’ eyes. If you aren’t happy with what you see staring back, then build a concrete plan for change.

As an aside, I would encourage you to think about how you seek and accept feedback. Some prior thoughts on that here:

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