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Words ≠ Actions

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Behavioral science suggests that words and actions are different. Yes we all know this as common sense but yet we don’t always remember it at work and at home.

Saying something, taking a test, creating a rule, policy, or process, is a set of words controlled by one set of factors whereas doing those things described in the words when you’re at work is controlled by a completely different set of factors.

It’s a mistake to assume the words and actions they represent are driven by the same factors, and this gets us into all kinds of trouble at work and frustrations in life.

This is why we have speed signs people don’t follow, safety rules people violate, meetings that people miss or don’t prepare for, and emails that people don’t read or act on. At home, the kids won’t go to bed when you ask them because they know you’ll let them stay up later if they are persistent enough.

Why do we assume that words on a page will cause people to ACT in a way that is dictated by them?

Our actions may be partially controlled by rules and written or spoken policies, but mostly we act in accordance with the physical and psychological environment we’re in.

Where do you see verbal or written requests failing at work or at home?

Reply in the comments or send me a note at with your thoughts and ideas.

*This originally appeared on LinkedIn. If you’d like to join the conversation, click here.

  1. Glen Kuper says:

    John, I really connected with the thought of our psychological environment influencing our behavior. One of the behaviors I have witnessed often in the last 20 years or so in the workplace is how we “compartmentize” so many aspects of our lives. This leads us to treat everything that is not in our current “compartment” as wallpaper……not important enough to pay attention to. For example, as we make our commute, our drive compartment is “podcast, music, phone call” versus paying attention to the speed limit or the actual route. As we get to the work site (I retired from a chemical plant), all of the EHSS posted notes are ignored as we are now focused on just getting from the parking lot to our desk. Most don’t even see the “Walk Like Penguin” Safety poster meant for winter weather still posted at every turnstile and entrance door. I saw several today as I entered to site to workout at the fitness center along with buckets of ice melt.

    As employees make their way to their specific work area, they do not pay attention to the sounds, possible odors, process indicators that could be pertinent to scope of their role. They may not even notice others arriving at work. They may find time to check their cell phones while walking…planning their lunch.
    Many prioritize anything on their cell phone as something to pay attention to. They have taken care to ensure what “pings/alert” has been set to match what they value. They do not treat it as “wallpaper”…it is customized to reflect their psychological values thus their psychological environment. Note: most people no longer seem to be strongly influenced by peers or even superiors.
    Open thoughts…not fully developed.

    Take care, Glen

    1. John says:

      Glen, Thanks so much for your insights into this topic! I do agree that many are on ‘autopilot’ for much of the day. However, I do believe that supervisors with effective skills do still make a strong impression on the hour to hour work of the teams. We are creatures of our environment – that’s what drives our behavior. It might be a phone or might be a person…or something else! Thanks for your thoughts on this!

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