Others define you by what you do, not by what you say

November 30, 2009
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Perhaps it’s just human nature that when the “going gets tough,” most of us start blaming someone else.

It is rare that, during the heat of an argument, someone will stop the conversation to take responsibility for the misunderstanding by saying, “Don’t worry about it — it wasn’t your fault. I totally messed up and take the blame for the problems we’re having.” More often than not, an argument is peppered with “It’s your fault,” or “We never would have been in this position had it not been for you.”

Why is it so hard to accept either responsibility for a mistake or recognition for a success?

As 2009 winds to an end, take a moment to think about the tendency to say “Do as I say, not as I do,” and seek ways that your actions (and words) might allow you to lead by example rather than by edict during the coming year. 

Taking the “glass house” syndrome to a management level (whether it be managing a company, a department or providing leadership to a family), it is hard to convince others to NOT do something when they see you do similar things yourself.

How can you expect your employees to adhere to an “8 to 5” schedule if your own day frequently begins at 8:15 or ends at 4:30? Forget about the fact that you might have been doing company business the previous night, or that lunch was more of a thought than an action, or that breaks are not part of the daily routine. People see you coming in late or leaving early and expect that to apply to them, too.

Parents tell their children to obey the rules even as they break the speed limit driving them somewhere, or to listen to their teachers even as they complain about the “boss that doesn’t know anything,” or to take time to enjoy life when they are “too busy” to play catch in the yard.

We cannot be perfect, but there are some rules I would suggest for living in a glass house. Though by no means all-inclusive, they would include:

Recognize that your actions speak far more loudly than your words. Others may hear what we say but they see what we do. As a child I was taught that “seeing is believing.” Never was I told that “hearing makes things right.” Whether you deal with people as a manager, a peer, a friend, or as part of a family, those around you establish their perception of you by what you do — by how you act — not by the things you say about yourself. To be viewed as credible you must act credibly.

Look for the good in others and loudly praise their positive actions while quietly addressing their shortcomings. People usually see what others do wrong but rarely recognize or acknowledge what they do right. As I walk through a store, I rarely hear a parent saying, “You are really being a good shopper today” to their child. Rather it’s “Don’t touch,” “Wait until we get home,” and “I’m never going to bring you shopping again.”

Though we need to address negative behavior to correct it, we should also make an effort to acknowledge and verbalize appreciation for things done well. The next time you’re involved in a heated debate with someone you care about, rather than saying “This is all your fault,” try to assume some of the responsibility yourself. People tend to react better when they know not only what they shouldn’t do (or have done) but also what they did (or are about to do) well.

Never throw bricks when you live in a glass house. Though you may open the window before tossing your criticism out at a friend or co-worker, they rarely take the time to open the door before returning fire. I’ve often heard people defend their inappropriate actions by shifting focus and blame — by saying “but you did such and such so don’t get on me!” When we view life as if we were living in a glass house — fully exposed to those around us with no place to hide our own errors and secrets — we find ourselves more understanding, not only of what others do but also of the reasons they do things. We are less apt to see fault in them when we first examine ourselves to make sure that we are without fault.

Judge yourself using the same standards you apply to others. The greatest leaders of our times would never ask others to do what they would not do themselves. Truly great generals led their troops into battle rather than following them from behind. Parents must “walk the talk” if they want their children to learn. Managers cannot expect loyalty, efficiency and good utilization of time from their employees without demonstrating it themselves.

When we live as though we are in a glass house, we begin to concentrate on what we should be doing rather than focusing on what others should not be doing. When our actions speak louder than our words — when they begin to reinforce the things we intentionally set out to do — others will follow our example rather than our edict. They will seek our approval rather than seeking to escape our criticism. They will absorb our praise and grow toward the light rather than being sheltered from reality out of fear of failure. 

We all live in a glass house of some kind with our thoughts, actions and attitudes on public display for the world to see. Perhaps we should take the time to wash the windows in our glass homes; it might help as much light shine in as we wish to shed on those around us.  

David J. Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association, a not-for-profit provider of human resource solutions since 1939.

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