Actions speak louder than words

14 October 2016
By Shahliza Rafiq, Senior Manager, Pwc Malaysia

My six year old recently gave me a simple lesson on trust. As we sat through dinner I glanced at his plate and noticed he had pushed all his vegetables to the side. I immediately told him to eat them up – if he wanted to grow up strong and healthy he needs to finish them. He then looked at me dead in the eye and said – “But you haven’t eaten yours mummy”. Glancing down on my plate, there on one side were my carrots and tomatoes. “If you don’t eat yours, then why should I eat mine?” – Precisely.

Jack Welch was recently quoted as saying that the most important component of leadership is trust and truth. Try doing a quick search on leadership and chances are trust comes up pretty high on the list.

Leaders who inspire trust create environments that boost morale, encourage innovation and above all see better results. While mistrust fosters frustration, low productivity and high turnover; trust affects a leader’s impact and the company’s bottom line more than any other single thing.

However, one of the biggest mistakes leaders can make is to assume that others trust them simply by virtue of their title – as in the case of my vegetables. Trust in leadership – like in any relationship needs to be built over time and through consistent effort. The good news is it’s not rocket science.

Honesty is still the best policy

Even when it’s difficult, tell the truth and not just what you think people want to hear. Most people would prefer to hear a negative truth than a positive lie. After all, it’s hard to trust and respect someone if we can’t believe what they tell us. [1] In 2013 Jack Ma announced he was stepping down as CEO and was passing the reins of Alibaba to Jonathan Lu.

CEO transitions can be tricky and are even more challenging and harder to get right when the current CEO is larger-than-life - like Ma. Having given this much thought, Ma sent an email to his employees following the announcement and acknowledged the obvious - Succeeding a founder CEO is a difficult job, especially taking over from a CEO with such a distinct personality. This requires great courage and the willingness to make sacrifices. Some might read this as arrogance displayed by a very successful man. But others may see it as honesty of a great leader (as the statement is, factually, 100% true). By doing what he did, Ma put reality on the table and because of his honest acknowledgement he created an environment of support for Lu.

Deliver on your commitments

All talk and no action is a sure-fire way of building mistrust. Say you’ll do something only if you are able to follow through, and don’t commit if there is a chance you won’t be able to deliver. Breaking a commitment can destroy the trust you’ve built as well as make people less inclined to trust you in the future. Earlier this year a friend of mine was put in a rather unfortunate situation. A year back she was promised a promotion on the premise that she completed certain projects and delivered the necessary results. Putting all her efforts on getting the promotion, she worked very hard throughout that year – achieving all that was needed (consistently validating with her superior that she was on the right track).

Can you imagine her disappointment when she didn’t get it? Though her superior was genuinely apologetic and explained how a change of policy from their head office led to this, my friend was disheartened. She left the company 3 months later. So did two other team members not long after her. She shared that because she was promised the promotion and had done her side of the bargain, it was hard to accept not getting it – whatever the rational reason behind it. Perhaps it would have been easier on everybody if her superior had been a little bit more tactful in sharing her potential for a promotion – rather than promising outright.

Consistency matters

The little things done consistently make for a higher level of trust and better results. You can’t say you believe in one thing but then contradict that with actions that go against it. People tend to trust people who show predictability or consistency. [2]Jeff Bezos is known and respected for establishing a consistent culture and value system at Amazon where the customer is the centre of it all. A number of years back, Bezos was reviewing television ads just before the launch of Kindle.

An earlier version of the ad included a whimsical snippet where a Kindle-carrying reader transformed into a brave matador, tossed into the air by a charging bull. Everyone giggled - except Bezos. He hit the rewind button and silently replayed the matador scene. While lots of people will find this funny, the customer there is being attacked; we can't let him get hurt - Bezos pointed out. Bezos is also known to periodically leave one seat open at a conference table and tells attendees that the seat is occupied by their customer - the most important person in the room. His consistency has certainly paid off – Bezos is ranked #1 on Fortune’s recent World’s Greatest Leaders list.

In short, leaders build trust through the authenticity of their actions. It comes from a conscious effort to walk the talk, keep promises and align behaviours with values. Perhaps my son was finding a quick way to avoid eating his vegetables. But in truth what he did was show me that actions speak louder than words any day – especially when it comes to trust.



[1] Great leaders use honesty to help their successors, HBR, March 2013

[2] Jeff Bezos reveals his No. 1 leadership secret, Forbes, April 2012

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