The doing-knowing gap

When we work hard to improve our behavior on the job, we tend to assume that colleagues see and appreciate it. Guess what? They often don’t.

I recently coached a senior leader as he prepared for a significant promotion. He had spent the past few years developing and honing critical interpersonal and leadership skills.

Querying his team, I found that his colleagues held him in high regard for his business acumen, integrity, customer focus and collegiality. I asked whether he was committed to continual improvement and professional excellence.

“Absolutely,” they said.

“Can you cite examples of improvements he has made?”

“Uh, no.”

I couldn’t believe it. His colleagues couldn’t identify a single change they’d seen over the past six months. Ditto for the past one to two years.

Under the radar

This leader isn’t alone. My firm examined feedback data for more than 300 of our senior coaching clients around the world. Although colleagues liked these leaders, respected their accomplishments and saw them as committed to improving their leadership and business performance, they rated them significantly lower for their actual improvements.

How can we account for such a glaring discrepancy? Why weren’t colleagues noticing all that they’d been doing to improve? When we shared the data with senior leaders, most just couldn’t understand.

In fact, many factors give rise to the “doing-knowing gap.”

Leaders might be working on behaviors that their colleagues don’t value. They might not actually be improving, despite their efforts. They might be improving but not yet managed to establish a consistent pattern of new behavior. Or they might be working on not doing something, which is usually hard to notice unless you explicitly point it out.

Registering the improvements

Don’t let these factors hold you back. To ensure that others register your improved behavior, set clear, specific improvement goals at regular intervals.

Boeing’s recently retired CEO Jim McNerney set annual 15 percent improvement goals. Others prefer to select one improvement area every six months, and simply make it clear to others what that is.

Be sure to let others know what you wish to improve, and check progress along the way. One study by Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan found that a leader’s ongoing interaction and follow-up dialogue with colleagues strongly affected whether people perceived an improvement.

You should also verify that colleagues’ positive perceptions of you aren’t abstract or superficial. Can colleagues give specific examples of improvement they’ve observed? Can they describe why these improvements matter to themselves, others and the business?

Finally, don’t just engage colleagues once in the improvement process. Do it on an ongoing basis. In fact, as you set your next personal improvement target, solicit feedback. You’ll engender goodwill, which in turn might motivate colleagues to help you progress and even work on their own behavior.

Hard work doesn’t guarantee behavior change, and behavior change doesn’t guarantee colleagues’ recognition and appreciation. So don’t keep your efforts to change a secret. Bring others along with you. Share the process with them. You won’t regret it.


Steve Jacobs is a senior adviser at CLG Inc., a business management consultancy that advises executives on how to achieve new performance, culture change and lasting competitive advantage through the principles of applied behavioral science. Steve is the lead author of “The Behavior Breakthrough — Leading Your Organization to a New Competitive Advantage.”