Walk Your Talk or Lose Your Job

Leadership, or how not to do it, at the World Bank

“What they say and what they do are two different things.”

How many times have you said this yourself or heard others say it about some managers?

It always reminds me of the times I got confused and irritated when my mother used to say to me “Do as I say not as I do!” It seems that inconsistency used to get to me even as a child. The interesting thing is that in the last few weeks I have just discovered why.

Inconsistency, or incongruency, between words and deeds is one of the fastest roads I know to lack of trust in organizations and the inability to bring about optimal performance and/or change.

Whether it’s your immediate boss, the CEO, senior management, or even the Board – if there is even the slightest hint that their words and actions don’t match, then it is usually no surprise that there is cynicism and lack of commitment.

Values statements

We see it with Values statements. For example, in one company I know, teamwork is an explicitly stated corporate value – yet if you ask sales why they cannot meet their delivery targets, they blame production. If you talk to call centre staff about why there are so many unhappy customers, they blame I.T. for poor systems or the marketers for over promising. So much for teamwork.

Maybe it is in the definition but for me, teamwork is not just about the act of working together as a team, it’s also about what you say of your ‘colleagues’ even if they are located in another department. Without this consistency in words and deeds then in reality the Value has no value.

Another example: recently in England, I hired a car. On the wall, a framed newspaper cutting said that the car hire company had beens nominated this year as “one of the best 100 companies to work in”. When I mentioned it, the staff member looked at me and said: “No it’s not!” Oops!

If he doesn’t believe the ‘writing on the wall’ then having it up there simply reinforces, subconsciously, any disconnect between words and actions in the company as a whole. As I’ve learned, it would be better not to have such items on display at all if the employees don’t believe it. It doesn’t make them proud, it just reinforces anything that’s wrong.

The crisis in leadership at the World Bank

As I followed the demise of Paul Wolfowitz as President of the World Bank, I was struck by the incongruent behaviour of a man responsible for an organization that lends $22 billion annually to poor nations, has 10,000 employees, and has ostensibly made his principal priority fighting corruption in countries receiving World Bank aid.

Corruption. What is an example of corruption if it is not ordering a promotion and salary raise for your girlfriend in breach of bank rules? For me it was a clear illustration of inconsistency: his words (fighting corruption in poor nations) and his in-house deeds (special treatment for his partner).

It was extraordinary – or maybe it wasn’t – that Wolfowitz appears to have initially refused to see that what he was doing in ordering special treatment for Riza was a huge conflict of interest. What is corruption if not that: acting contrary to the interests of your organization in such a situation?

As my mum said: do as I say, not as I do.

Why our brains don’t like inconsistency

At the 1st Global Summit on NeuroLeadership that I attended (May 2007) along with 40 other specifically invited participants, we heard one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, Jeffrey Schwartz talk about that moment when our mind spots that something is not what we expect it to be; how our attention is aroused, and what we do in that instant.

A situation potentially leads us to The Almond Effect ® – when we do something that our brain has stimulated us to do, without thinking.

Another fascinating neuroscientist Robert Coghill talked about such a situation in another way in the context of the work he has done on human responses to pain.

Coghill said that our brain is continuously processing past history, the present context and future implications as it deals with incoming information. Again, sounds like the catalyst for The Almond Effect ® doesn’t it?

Coghill told us that our brain compares incoming information with what it predicts should be the information coming in. If the two sets of information are consistent, then it is business as usual.

However if the incoming information is not consistent with what we expect, then our attention is diverted to the inconsistency to resolve the conflict in our mind.

Resolving inconsistency

For example, if hear footsteps behind us, see a dark shadow in the ocean or smell smoke in an enclosed place, we react to resolve the conflict between what we expect as the ‘norm’ and the conflicting advice. We might turn around or run like mad, swim away in fright or go for a closer look and so on.

At work, when we see or hear inconsistency between words and actions, we also act to resolve the conflict. However, the way we do this may be very different to the way we might do it at home. At work, we simply might say things like “Here we go again” or “I’ll do it when they do!” If we are not able to change the conflicting behaviors; we just have to learn to live with them.

A common way that people behave in the face of inconsistent behaviour, when managers talk the talk but don’t walk it, is simply not to trust and consequently not to engage and commit. I would like to see some specific research on the relationship between poor engagement survey results and incongruent management behaviour. If you know of any, please let me know.

Neuroscience at work

The impact of incongruency is another example of the impact of our brains’ ‘hard-wiring’ and our responses to what happens at work.

Wolfowitz’ resignation became the inevitable response to the inconsistency between the reality and the Board’s collective brain’s expectation of the behaviour of the World Bank ‘leader’.

As the open letter to the Board from 37 country directors said of the Paul Wolfowitz situation: “it has damaged our reputation and jeopardizes our effectiveness as a development institution.”

Net result: failure to walk his talk cost Wolfowitz his job.