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Being Defined By Your Actions: Understanding & Taking Control

In another post, we examined how actions speak louder than words in a team setting. Several weeks ago, we also wrote about how people rush to judge others. When you add those two tendencies together, what it means is that the things you do will be the way others define you.

Just think about our vernacular. People say things like, “She’s unreliable.” They don’t typically say, “She has a tendency to be unreliable” or, “Her behavior is, at times, unreliable.” We’re just not that generous. We pronounce judgments based on the actions we’ve observed, and we make these blanket statements because of those judgments.

Understanding Your Current Actions

When managers learn the best practices for giving employees feedback, they are taught to speak in terms of observed behaviors. So the “she’s unreliable” comment that comes naturally is put into context and stated in terms of what was observed. Then it sounds like, “She was late in delivering what we agreed to in our last three projects and did not do her part at all on the most recent team assignment.” With context, we have so much more to work with – objective, observed actions are neutral and mean the same thing to each party. Blanket statements that judge or define are not helpful in the same way.

The reasons that blanket statements are unhelpful include that they cause the person being judged to become defensive and deny accountability for the underlying actions. Additionally, these judgments mean different things to different people. “Unreliable” is a common enough word that we assume everyone understands and uses it the same way. But we don’t. What I consider to be unreliable is not necessarily the same as what you would consider that to be. It isn’t fair for me to call you unreliable and then expect you to become reliable if I haven’t spelled out the actions that would cause me to feel that way about you.

These practical reasons are cause enough to speak in terms of behaviors and observed actions rather than judging others. But there is another reason, one that is even more important over the long term. This matters in the workplace, and it may matter even more when parents, teachers and other adults talk to children. It certainly matters when we talk to ourselves, at all stages in life. The primary reason that it’s important to look at behaviors and talk about actions without pronouncing judgment is that many people tend to define themselves in the way they are judged.

“I’m not smart,” “I’m a natural leader,” “I’m hardly the athletic type,” “I’m not good with kids,” “I’m a player, ” “I’m not very trustworthy,” and “I’m just average” are all recent examples of statements I’ve heard from high school students who attended a leadership training program over their summer break. In each case, I asked the student why they believed the statement they made. I asked if this was a permanent state, and they all felt that it was. Then I asked them to give me the facts behind these conclusions they’d drawn about themselves. Each one said that they’ve heard it before, and not one was able to fully prove it to me through behavioral evidence. Nonetheless, they fully believed and made choices in their lives related to these pronouncements.

It’s no different in the workplace. People assume roles based on what others think of them. People assign work, pick teams, give promotions and raises, and interact with others based on these kinds of perceptions about who someone is. And it’s all based on a few actions or behaviors that take on a life of their own. Others’ perceptions become our own realities.

It simply isn’t a valid equation. It is not true that your actions define who you are, especially not in a permanent and unchangeable way. You do not have to accept others’ definitions, even though those definitions are based on your actions and the perceptions created by them. It takes time, of course, to change the way others will see you. But it will never happen unless you first change the way you see yourself. You can, and probably should, reject the way you’ve been defined if you do not wish to be seen in that way.

Mindfully Changing Your Actions To Take Control

Here’s some good news. You do have some natural tendencies that may lead you to behave in certain ways. They stem from your inborn personality. They are not absolute, but they are your “comfort zone.” Maturity involves being self-aware about your own natural tendencies and then developing to stretch beyond them to be more effective. Your own natural tendencies, like everyone else’s, are neither good nor bad. They just are. Everyone has these preferences, some that serve them well and some that don’t. Sorting out the ones you want to embrace and the ones you’d like to modify is important work.

Knowing yourself is the first step in defining and accepting yourself. You can be empowered by self-definition that replaces others’ definitions. Once you have defined who you are and what you want others to see from you, then you will be able to act in accordance with that definition. Your actions – the ones that others will judge – will ensure that you are defined by others in exactly the same way you have deliberately and thoughtfully defined yourself.

The turnaround you can expect when you do this is profound. Who you are will determine your actions. Random or accidental actions will no longer define who you are. You will be in control of how you are perceived.

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