Paradigm Shifter #30: Believe what people do (not what they say)

Paradigm Shift

We’ve all heard the old adage, “Actions speak louder than words.”  However, I’ve found that many of us prefer to believe what people say, rather than what they actually do – depending upon our perceptions of the current or potential relationship with them.  (See Paradigm Shifter #52:  There is no such thing as reality, only perception.)

Consider the words used to “sell” both the candidate and the job in the typical hiring process:

  • The traditional job interview is a cauldron of self-serving words used by both the job candidate and the company to create an image of the future employment relationship.  This is because the interview is essentially a sales opportunity:  the candidate extols their benefits to the employer and the employer makes the job sufficiently attractive to entice a qualified candidate to accept the job offer.
  • Job candidates are coached to craft answers to common interview questions in a way that places the most positive “spin” on their KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) as well as the scope of their experience.  The extent of that “spin” ranges from conscious omissions of certain facts to outright lies about credentials.
  • Skilled recruiters and desperate hiring managers may enhance the “reality” of the job’s responsibilities, work environment, and political environment (often saying that there are no politics in their workplaces!).  Too many candidates accept this description as accurate – but many workers have experienced this “bait and switch” when the actual job was significantly different from what had been “promised” in the interview.

Deciding what’s “real” and what’s merely “spin” is, therefore, a challenge for both the company and the candidate.  Internet searches, background checks, in box exercises, role playing, and assessment centers are increasingly used to determine if what both the candidate and employer say is true.

Once hired, the decisions relating to whether to believe coworkers’ words or actions continue.

  • Both managers and coworkers complain when employees agree to certain project timelines or standards then fail to meet them.  Depending on our perceptions of both the situation and the employee, their reasons (or words) might be ignored in light of the results (or actions) OR exceptions for the lack of results might be granted if their reasons are perceived as “sufficiently compelling.”

Warning!  These personal relationships can lead to charges of bias or discriminatory practices when we accept excuses from one employee, but are inflexible with another – particularly if he or she is a member of a protected class.  Rationalization for these differences varies from justifiable patterns of past behaviors to intentional or unintentional discrimination.

The Continuum of Whether to Believe Words vs. Actions

The decision to rely on either words or actions depends upon numerous factors:  the level of authority vis-à-vis the employee, the effects that his or her actions have on our own productivity and success, as well as the quality and history of our personal relationship.

The extent to which we believe words vs. actions lies on a continuum.  On one end is the belief that all people lie, so you can’t trust anything that they say; this is abject cynicism.   Conversely, blindly believing anything that anyone tells us is dangerous naiveté.  Perceptions on either end of this continuum fail to build teamwork, trust, and productivity in the workplace.

Fortunately, most people are somewhere in the middle.  The critical factor in determining where we fall on this continuum is experience over time.  Our past experiences with others will generally be the framework for deciding whether to believe a new worker’s words or wait to see their actions.  In established relationships (manager/subordinate or coworker/coworker), past actions will generally be relied on as the “truth” in future situations.

Our actions reflect our priorities – even if they contradict what we say.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to

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