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  • Writer's pictureEdward Grey

Are you "Walking the Talk'?

The phrase "walking the talk" is commonly understood to mean 'doing what you said you'd do'. A similar maxim often espoused is "practice what you preach".  Both are used most often in the context of how others judge our behaviours; we usually hear these phrases when it's something to do with an opinion or observation of someone else. 

Human beings are quick to evaluate other people's behaviours and compare them with our own standards, values or expectations. To be clear, this article is not about the validity of this common human process of passing judgement upon other people's actions; it seems that we cannot not do so because, arguably, it's one of the most fundamental ways each of us can evolve our subjective 'map' of reality.  It's one of the ways by which we establish our personal values and beliefs systems as we check their appropriateness against those of others.


This article is pointing to something else, something more subtle.  It's about modelling.  (No, not the sort that occurs on the cat-walk!)

How do human beings learn what is appropriate, effective or acceptable behaviour?

The question that underpins this article is: How do human beings learn what is appropriate, effective or acceptable behaviour? To answer this, we shall call on some generally accepted understandings of the basic process through which each of us arrive at a particular way of behaving - we model others.  In so doing, we'll consider why 'walking the talk' is so very important to creating the best possible conditions for people in your business/family/army unit/council/team to behave in ways that meet expectations.

The central point is this: we learn from what we see others do; we create meaning on the basis of what is happening around us. This acquisition process seems to be universal; I'm not an anthropologist, but I suspect there is ample scientific evidence that this 'modelling of others' is the bedrock of how humans have evolved. We model constantly.  During our 'formative years' (0-8) a rapid and significant amount of development occurs: emotional, physiological, social, cognitive, neurological....and apart from heredity, we acquire our understandings of the world via the models we have around us. This is where the term 'role model' originated - what we come to know as 'true' (why, what, how, when to behave in a given context etc) - is learned through observation of others.

From the moment we are born, the behaviours we exhibit is both a response to and a copying of the behaviours we see and hear. Monkey see, monkey do.

Simply put, from the moment we are born, the behaviours we exhibit is both a response to and a copying of the behaviours we see and hear. Monkey see, monkey do.

We all know this.  So why am I bringing this back here?  Because, when organisations want to change the behaviours of their people, they often forget about how imperative it is to have role models of the desired behaviour actively demonstrating what is required. The famous Gandhi quote comes to mind: "Be the change you want to see in the world". So it is true within any culture or group.

And I'm not just talking about leaders or managers; to get a culture shift, where people behave in ways that are consistent and aligned with the values of the group, everyone needs to embody the concept of role-modelling. In other words, whilst there is an absolute need for the most influential people in any given hierarchy to behave in ways that reflect the values of the group, each person within that group needs to recognise that their own behaviour is inevitably influential; the idea that role modelling is the exclusive domain of leadership is bogus. The question then arises: How can a given group evolve systems, ways of working and role modelling processes that, at the very least, helps people appreciate that their own behaviours matters?

This article is not to give my opinion on what particular behaviours are most appropriate or optimal; is there a set of such behaviours that everyone could agree on, regardless of setting?  I don't think so.

But we are here to get a better understanding of three things: first, what are the factors that inform our behaviours and innervate our neurology to act in a particular way; second, what does it take for an organisation to establish and deploy role models who consistently and authentically behave in those looked-for new ways; and third, how can groups evolve in ways that engage everyone in an appreciation that behaviour actually matters?

In the second of this series, I'll be answering the various questions I have posed above. 

For now, whatever your role (in personal or profession life), you may wish to ruminate on these more personal questions: What new behaviour are you looking to establish in your life/work and who do you know that is a role model for that behaviour?

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