Focus more on what they do, less on what they say

Have you ever said one thing, and then done another? Of course! Everyone has at one time or another, and that includes customers, employees, suppliers and peers. It is rarely mendacious, but it happens.

Yet when businesses gather information, they often carry on as if words always equal deeds – very much to their cost.

Children learn early in life – perhaps they simply stumble upon it – that one option open to them is to say things for effect rather than to convey truth. We can create effects which are useful to us and could not have been achieved otherwise.

I’m not thinking about out-and-out lying. A more perplexing issue is when saying-one-thing-and-doing-another arises out of a desire to be polite, or to please, or avoid offending a questioner. And often, respondents genuinely believe that their intention is to do the thing they said, but then their minds or circumstances change, and they do something else.

So, reserving the term ‘lying’ for deliberate attempts to mislead, and deferring discussions of moral grey areas, it’s important to recognise saying-one-thing-and-doing-another as a ubiquitous fact of human social life.

Well-designed psychology experiments take care to factor such biases out. It’s tricky. In fact even when asked an anonymous question on a self-completed survey, or online, people may provide an answer that reflects their preferred self-image rather than how they will behave in the actual situation. As an amusing but telling example, one trade association I know found out that people may say they want educational rather than social events, and genuinely believe it, but then the turnout will be much better for the summer barbeque!

What does this mean for your business? Well, when a survey or focus group respondent is asked a question about likely purchasing behaviour, or how they will respond to a change in terms and conditions, how do you know you are getting good information? And, if you are conducting an appraisal with a direct report, in which you have influence over there compensation, ditto?

Could this be adversely affecting your decision-making about customers and employees? You bet. The best guide to what people do is what people do, and that is often very different from what they say they will do. Are your senior managers relying on surveys, or are you attending to observable behaviour and evidence in the environment?

© 2012. Andrew Bass. All Rights Reserved.