Would you be willing to preach what you practice?

There's an old saying

Practice what you preach

Practice what you preach is a variation of Practice yourself what you preach. I think we are all familiar with the phrase. I suspect most of us understand the basic sentiment upon first read.

This phrase addresses hypocrisy. It originally spoke to those who demanded others be pious while themselves partaking in sinful activities. It certainly applies to anyone whose personal life is lived in a manner incongruent with the values and behaviors they publicly espouse.

But what if you don't preach?

While hypocrisy is certainly distasteful and ugly, most of us are more challenged by what we do and don't openly talk about. Most of us don't preach. Most of us don't presume to publicly tell others what to do, especially if we feel our own behavior is less than exemplary.

But does failure to be a public hypocrite justify unsavory behavior? Is it acceptable to act in a reprehensible manner so long as you don't tell others they shouldn't?

It's not personal, it's only business

I've heard this phrase a few times in my career. I loathe this phrase. Business is nothing if it is not personal. The people who have uttered this phrase to me did so without hesitation. At the moment they said it, they genuinely believed it. They were backing out of a handshake agreement, laying off people to increase their own bonus, or flat out lying to a business partner. Business to them, was about money and nothing else.

But had they been asked to, would they stand in front of a crowd and condone lying or cheating to make an extra dollar? Would they advise others to behave this way if they knew it was being recorded for posterity to be played back in every future job interview? I doubt it. While they may live this way, they wouldn't publicly admit it.

What do you want me to do, crack your skull open and pour knowledge into it?

I was in the room when a former boss of mine said this to a new employee. The employee was asking about a set of instructions for configuring a modem. Our boss had written the instruction set and was "training" the new employee on proper procedure. They had spent much of the day together and the employee, as might be expected, had several questions. This particular question was a legitimate suggestion for improvement masked as an inquiry. But the content of the question didn't seem to matter. It was one question too many for the manager to handle.

Would this manager blog about yelling at employees as a proper method to keep them in their place? Would this manager be willing to teach an introduction to management course where berating and insulting your employees was encouraged? Certainly not. In fact, he considered himself quite the benevolent dictator.

Lie and deceive in order to build trust

I was not new to management, but I was new to management at this particular company. I found the politics especially difficult to navigate. This was a particularly difficult environment for me to work in. A peer and I used to go for runs at lunch. We'd talk the entire time and while discussions were often about training techniques or local races, we would occasionally talk about work. During one work related discussion, I asked him how he dealt with the politics, lack of good leadership, and other issues plaguing our ability to deliver.

"I tell them what they want to hear and then I do what I know needs to be done. I don't give status unless I'm asked and I don't give it in writing. Most projects die around here for other reasons. As long as they think I'm on schedule, I don't get blamed."

I thought about it for a while and I said, "So you lie to them."

"You can't do it all and nobody wants to hear the truth."

Would his Master's Thesis be "Lying as a necessary path to success"? Would "Lie to your customer" become a part of the orientation packet for his team. Would he ever consider publishing a "lied and died" project metric? That would be career suicide. Yet he operated every day in this exact fashion.

Screw them before they screw you

A former business partner of mine was excellent at finding weaknesses in our contracts and shoring them up. He was excellent at negotiating terms favorable to us. He was adept at ferreting out customers who might be difficult to work with. I genuinely appreciated all of these characteristics as they clearly offset my naivety. But as time went on, I found it more and more difficult to enter into engagements with clients. Our contract and terms were off-putting. Clients were confused by the incongruent presentation; a personable, amicable, partnering sales cycle followed with a iron-clad, one-sided contract. This became a point of contention between us. I was stripping contracts back to basics and working hand-shake deals while my partner was rallying for more stringent terms and insisting we kick anyone who didn't comply to the curb.

Then one afternoon, we were in a rather heated discussion over the subject and he said to me, "People are out to screw you. Everybody is out to screw us. That's how it works. You need to screw them before they screw you."

Would he have written a book entitled, "Making it in business: screw them before they screw you"? Would he put on his resume that he was entirely distrustful of people and had no issues screwing them over? I think not. But he lived his life by this very creed.

C'mon, Doc. Those are extreme cases.

I am not convinced any of them are extreme. None of them are of a character furthest removed from the ordinary or average. But let's step away from overt actions of personal disregard and distrust and look at the certainly common.

  • Cut corners to get it done fast
  • Give teams who are supposed to work together conflicting objectives
  • Make sure employees are 100% utilized
  • Use metrics as goals and reward results
  • Rely strictly on policy to guide behavior
  • Dispense information on a need to know basis
  • Demand solutions instead of problems
  • Accept accolades for success and place blame for failure
  • Work 60+ hours/week
  • Foster a culture of heroism
  • Don't ask for help
  • Speak for the customer rather than to the customer
  • Prioritize new features over defect fixes
  • Make sure everyone knows who's in charge
  • Tell people what they want to hear, not what you believe can be done
  • Make everything a top priority
  • Ask for all or nothing
  • Multi-task

I propose a different saying

Preach what you practice.

I'm not saying we all need to stand atop boxes and share our primarily banal existences with the world. That's what Facebook's for.

But I do encourage you to stop and reflect regularly; would you be willing to preach what you practice?