People judge us by what we do, not what we say | Blue Sky

People judge us by what we do, not what we say


People will follow your lead

I had a catch-up with some old University friends recently, which quickly descended into a rather noisy and hysterical session of sharing all the awful things our children have inadvertently learned from us and copied. The list was long and included swearing, hiding food and lying to their father about new toys. Oh, the shame!

That’s the thing about being a role-model; monkey see, monkey do.

Talking of monkeys; in the 1980’s a neuroscientific research project carried out at the University of Palma, Italy, studied specific actions that were associated with specific neurons. Working with monkeys they discovered that specific neurons responded when the monkeys were mirroring the actions and behaviours of the researchers. This work laid the foundation for their seminal paper[i] ‘The Mirror-Neuron System’ which showed a clear link between mirroring and learning, work that has been further evidenced, supported and validated across cultures. The implications? We learn from each other often without realising; this starts at the earliest stages of our existence, with new-born babies matching gestures from just 42 seconds into their lives[ii]. If you aren’t showing me what matters, then how can you expect me to make it matter too?  Monkey see, monkey do.

This is especially important for leaders and managers. Leaders can have great ideas and intentions around how they want the business to sell and serve customers, but unless they are out in the live environment doing things that visibly demonstrate that intent, it’s just words on a page. If I don’t see you doing it, then how can I believe you when you say it is important?


People don’t judge your intent they judge you by your actions

Real change comes about when people at the top do something differently. Great leaders and managers realise their teams are continuously watching them, looking for the difference between what the leader says and what they do.

Let’s have a think about this in terms of customer experience…

Symbolic actions are the things that people can see and reference that demonstrate visible commitment to customer in your organisation. They are brought to life through every day, repeated actions that people can see, hear and feel. Many organisations have what we call service signatures; visible behaviours which define a brand’s focus and approach to customer experience. When everyone in the business understands what they are and knows how to demonstrate them, they can be a very effective differentiator, when they are just words on a page, your people recognise them as window dressing that mean nothing.

Let me give you some examples… 

Recently I heard about a large supermarket chain who each year, as Christmas approaches, make all managers and leaders spend one day shelf stacking in their local store. On the surface this seems like a symbolic act, but without a defined intent is actually just a PR gimmick or cost saving strategy to put more resource in store at the busiest time of year.

Contrast this with a financial organisation that is famous for its customer service.  At this company every manager and leader must take at least four hours of customer calls every month. If they don’t? They cannot apply for promotion for nine months. It’s a true demonstration of their commitment to customer, helps them understand front-line challenges and supports colleagues all at once. Now that’s symbolic.


What makes it symbolic?

Symbolic actions are not a tick box exercise like an annual back-to-the-floor event – that’s really not it. Symbolic actions are genuine commitments that are visibly demonstrated so people can see and experience leaders walking the talk.

A symbolic act is an internal thing. The focus is on the customer, but the message is for your people, it is the proof of your intent and, when powerful enough, can create a tsunami of passion for the customer across your organisation.

Crucially, a symbolic act must be a long-term commitment which becomes part of the culture. Once a year is not enough.

Here are three examples of symbolic things leaders do in some of the best cultural climates we know (they do take some commitment!)

  • In a financial services organisation we have worked with, the people with most proximity to its customers park closest to the building. The higher up the corporate ladder you are the further away from the building you park. The message that staff hear from this? If you interact with our customers on the front-line then you’re the most important people that work here. We want you to feel important and get to work easily and quickly to be there for our customers. We prioritise you and customer service.
  • Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos’ email address is to make him accessible to customers and when he receives a complaint by email he forwards it to the relevant person in the business and gives them a few hours to resolve it. It’s a way of making the customers voice heard through the business and is treated like a ticking bomb.
  • Semco Partners, a Brazilian company best known for its radical form of industrial democracy and corporate re-engineering keeps two chairs free at its board meetings. Those chairs are taken by the first two colleagues to arrive (there’s often a queue for this opportunity) and each of those colleagues hold equal voting rights and opportunity to participate as every senior executive at the meeting. As Ricardo Semler who founded the company and champions this kind approach put it, “it keeps us honest”.


Five things you can do right now to role-model the customer experience behaviours you expect from your team

  1. Ask you team what they’d like to see
  2. As a leadership team consider what you are doing now that isn’t aligned with your customer experience strategy
  3. Add symbolic acts to the agenda of your next leadership meeting
  4. Implement symbolic acts and hold each other accountable
  5. Ask for feedback on how the changes have impacted your team members or customers

To engage people in how you want them to deliver customer experiences you need to do something noticeable, something that lets people know you mean business. Once you have committed to the symbolic act you must keep doing it so it becomes a habit. Habits build culture.


[i] Rizzolatti. G, Craighero. Laila. The Mirror-Neuron System 2004

[ii] Meltzoff. A. N., Prinz. W. The Imitative Mind 2002

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