Leadership Principle #36: People's plans rarely match what they actually do. “This is the self-assured city that lives in security, that thinks to herself: I am, and there is no one besides me. What a desolation she has become, a place for wild animals to lie down!” – Zep 2:15
The prophet Zephaniah warned the citizens of Judah that if they changed their rebellious ways, God would withhold punishment. Yet they ignored his warnings.
If you had surveyed the average citizen of Judah about their respect for God, they would’ve honored him with their lips, but their actions would’ve told a different story.
Market surveys today exhibit the same fallacy: people's walks don’t always match their talk.
Market research consultant Douglas Ryan writes that customers often skew their responses to reflect their ideal selves, not their actual selves (from “Watch, don’t listen,” Quirk’s Marketing Research Review, 2003).
They want to appear stronger, smarter, wiser, or whatever quality they lack. Ryan cites the 1939 Western Electric time and motion studies, in which researchers hunted for ways to improve the working environment in order to maximize productivity. “The experiments were confounded by the workers’ efforts to make a positive impression. Knowing they were being observed, the workers upped their output independently of the variables being controlled.”
Asking for consumers’ judgments and opinions, says Ryan, is not as reliable as recording the actual choices they make.
One of his proofs is AC Nielsen’s move to automated people meters from family TV viewing diaries. The survey company learned through beta tests that the meters actually highlighted the flaws in the diary process. “Memory, habit, and other human traits created a gap between what ‘Nielsen’ families filled out in their diaries and what it turned out they actually were doing.”
People haven’t changed much since Zephaniah’s day. Though they’re quick to offer their opinions and describe their actions, reality is not always represented. Observation remains the best measure of customer preferences and employee effectiveness.
As you seek feedback from people about their plans for the future, be mindful of the human tendency to elevate the ideal self over the real self. Don’t make plans based on the stated intentions of the masses – the only surety you can rely on is that people change their minds.
Tom Harper is president of Networld Media Group, a publisher of online trade journals and events for the banking, retail, restaurant and church leadership markets. He is the author of Leading from the Lions' Den: Leadership Principles from Every Book of the Bible (B&H).