Closing the "Say-Do" Gap: Neuroscience, Leadership, and the Path to Integrity


The "Say-Do" Gap

The “say-do” gap –  the disparity between what individuals promise and what they actually deliver, is a critical challenge in leadership. Neuroscientific insights reveal the underpinnings of this gap, while practical strategies can help leaders align their actions with their words, fostering trust and credibility.

A study conducted by the Harvard Business Review analysed the behavior of 5,400 business leaders and found that those who consistently closed the “say-do” gap were rated significantly higher in terms of effectiveness and trustworthiness by their subordinates.

Research from the Center for Creative Leadership indicates that leaders who align their actions with their words are more likely to inspire loyalty and commitment in their teams. This alignment, often referred to as behavioral integrity, is crucial for maintaining a positive organisational culture and achieving long-term success.

Without fail there are a number of factors contributing to the “say do” gap but the common  reasons include:

  1. Stress and Pressure: High-stress environments, such as fast-paced corporate settings, can impair executive function and moral reasoning. The brain’s response to stress can prioritise immediate survival or success over ethical considerations.

  2. In-Group Bias: Evolutionary psychology suggests that humans are wired to favor their in-group over out-groups. This can lead to unethical decisions aimed at benefiting one’s group at the expense of others, often justified through dehumanisation or moral disengagement.

  3. Incrementalism: Known as the “slippery slope” effect, small unethical decisions can escalate over time. Individuals may start with minor infractions, which gradually lead to more significant ethical violations. This phenomenon is supported by research into ethical fading, where the moral aspects of a decision become less salient over times.

In this article we seek to delve into this more deeply to identify patterns of poor behaviour and decision making and to assist leaders and emerging leaders make better decisions.

Neuroscience Behind the “Say-Do” Gap

Boeing (2018-2019)

After two fatal crashes involving the 737 MAX aircraft, investigations revealed that Boeing had prioritised production speed and cost-cutting over safety, with significant lapses in the testing and certification processes. Internal documents showed that some employees were aware of these issues but did not take appropriate action. It was only when government had to intervene after the 3rd crash did Boeing take note. A “safety culture” and psychologically safe culture were destroyed.

Neuroscience provides a compelling lens through which to understand the “say-do” gap. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and impulse control, plays a pivotal role. When leaders make commitments, they engage this part of the brain, envisioning the future and setting intentions. However, the implementation of these commitments often requires action from the limbic system, which governs emotions and reactions to immediate stimuli. This divergence between planning and execution can lead to a failure to follow through on promises.

A study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience highlights how the brain’s reward system influences decision-making. When leaders make promises, they receive a dopamine boost, which reinforces the positive feeling of making a commitment. However, the actual fulfillment of these promises demands sustained effort and often doesn’t provide the same immediate reward, making it easier to neglect the initial commitment.

Research findings

  1. Good Samaritan Study (1973)

    • Researchers: John Darley and Daniel Batson
    • Study: Inspired by the parable of the Good Samaritan, this study explored how situational factors influence helping behavior. Seminary students were asked to give a talk on the Good Samaritan or another topic, and were told they were either late or had plenty of time.
    • Findings: Those who were in a hurry were significantly less likely to help a person in distress compared to those who were not in a hurry. This study highlights how situational pressure, such as time constraints, can lead to morally questionable behavior, even among those predisposed to help. The other finding was that conflicting priorities led to making decisions under pressure where it was a perception of “letting someone down” that led to some students actually stepping over the “study”.
  2. The Banality of Evil and the Eichmann Trial

    • Researcher: Hannah Arendt
    • Study: Arendt’s analysis of Adolf Eichmann, a key organiser of the Holocaust, during his trial in Jerusalem introduced the concept of the “banality of evil.” She argued that Eichmann was not a fanatic or sociopath, but an ordinary individual who conformed to the norms and expectations of the Nazi regime.
    • Findings: This research suggests that ordinary people can commit atrocious acts when they conform to authority and follow orders without critical reflection. It emphasises the power of systemic and situational factors in ethical decision-making.
  3. Cheating in Collaborative Settings (2014)

    • Researchers: Francesca Gino, Shahar Ayal, and Dan Ariely
    • Study: This research examined how people justify unethical behavior in collaborative settings. Participants were more likely to cheat on a task when they believed that others in their group were also cheating.
    • Findings: The study found that social norms and the behavior of peers significantly influence individual ethical decisions. When unethical behavior is perceived as common or acceptable within a group, individuals are more likely to engage in it.
  4. The Effects of Power on Moral Hypocrisy (2011)

    • Researchers: Joris Lammers, Diederik A. Stapel, and Adam D. Galinsky
    • Study: This research investigated how power influences ethical behavior and moral hypocrisy. Participants were primed to feel powerful or powerless and then faced with ethical dilemmas.
    • Findings: Those primed with power were more likely to act hypocritically, holding others to higher moral standards than they applied to themselves. This suggests that power can corrupt moral judgment, leading to unethical decisions.

"There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they're falling in."

Intention and Action - How did it happen?

The process by which individuals make ethically bad or immoral decisions, often baffling to outsiders, is a complex interplay of neurological, psychological, and social factors. Neuroscience and behavioral studies provide valuable insights into how people can make decisions that seem blatantly unethical or immoral to others.

Cognitive Biases

  • Confirmation Bias – Impact on Leaders: Leaders may ignore or downplay issues that contradict their beliefs or the positive narrative they prefer about their organisation. This bias leads them to selectively gather information that supports their current strategies or views, reinforcing a blind spot towards real problems.

  • Status Quo BiasImpact on Leaders: Leaders might resist acknowledging problems because it could necessitate changes that are perceived as risky or disruptive. Maintaining the status quo feels safer and more manageable than confronting and addressing issues that require significant effort and adaptation.

  • Overconfidence Bias: Impact on Leaders: Overconfidence can lead leaders to underestimate the severity of issues or overestimate their ability to manage them without taking appropriate actions. This bias blinds leaders to the complexity and potential consequences of emerging problems

Stress Responses

  1. Fight-Flight-Freeze- Appease: Impact on Leaders: Chronic stress and high-pressure environments can trigger a fight-or-flight response, leading to avoidance behaviors. Leaders might metaphorically “flee” from issues by ignoring them, hoping they will resolve on their own or disappear without direct confrontation

  2. Failure to engage the whole brain :  Impact on Leaders In stressful situations, the amygdala’s rapid response can overshadow the more deliberate, rational functions of the PFC, leading to less effective leadership. Recognising and addressing this dynamic can help leaders manage stress better, make more considered decisions, and create a more engaged and resilient workforce.

 Social Dynamics

  1. Groupthink: Impact on Leaders: Leaders might ignore issues due to the pressure to conform to the group’s consensus, even if it contradicts their own observations or the available evidence. The fear of disrupting group cohesion or facing opposition can lead to a preference for inaction.

    2. Social Comparison Theory:Impact on Leaders: Leaders might avoid acknowledging issues to maintain a favorable comparison with their peers. Admitting problems could be perceived as a weakness or failure, which can be particularly threatening in competitive or high-status environments

Neuroscientific Insights

  1. Cognitive Dissonance: Impact on Leaders: When confronted with information that conflicts with their self-image as competent and effective leaders, they experience cognitive dissonance. To reduce this discomfort, they might ignore or rationalise away the conflicting information rather than addressing the underlying issues.

  2. Neurological Reward SystemsImpact on Leaders: Leaders might focus on short-term successes and positive feedback that activate the brain’s reward system, thereby reinforcing behaviors that avoid conflict. Addressing complex problems often does not provide immediate rewards and can even be punishing in the short term, discouraging leaders from taking necessary but difficult actions.

Closing the gap

Leaders can take several practical steps to reduce the “say-do” gap:

    1. Alignment – work with organisations where you are aligned with their values and strategic objectives – in particular what is “important” to them. The biggest issues have come from when leaders put profits before people. If you are not aligned you will never behave in a way that is genuine, authentic and does not automatically put you in a “defensive” response.

    2. Set Clear Expectations: Clearly define what is expected when making commitments. This clarity helps both the leader and their team understand the specific actions required to meet those commitments.

    3. Prioritise Commitments: Not all promises are equal. Leaders should prioritise their commitments based on their importance and feasibility, ensuring that critical promises are met first.

    4. Develop a Supportive Environment: Cultivating a culture that supports follow-through on commitments can enhance accountability. Encouraging collaboration and mutual support helps ensure that promises are kept.

    5. Continuous Improvement: Regularly assess performance and seek ways to improve. Leaders who are committed to personal growth and development are more likely to close the “say-do” gap effectively.

    6. Foster psychological safety:  Fostering an environment where people can talk honestly and openly will ensure that you are informed. Establishing channels for open communication can help individuals feel safe to voice concerns and report unethical behavior without fear of retribution.

    7. Build Self awareness and Moral awareness: Leaders need to build self awareness and make time for reflection. Training programs that increase awareness of cognitive biases and moral disengagement mechanisms can help individuals recognise and counteract unethical tendencies. 

    8. Build accountability: It is easy to justify actions but it is harder to “stay the course when under pressure to deviate from it”. Leaders need to build accountability and demonstrate it when it matters. Not retiring with millions of dollars and leaving a mess as many leaders do.

    9. Stress Management: Providing resources and support to manage stress can help maintain cognitive function and moral reasoning abilities. This includes promoting work-life balance and offering mental health support.

    10. Creating Ethical Cultures: Organisational cultures that emphasise ethical behavior, transparency, and accountability can reduce the likelihood of unethical decisions. Leaders play a crucial role in setting and modeling ethical standards.

Key Takeaways:

  • The interplay of brain function, psychological mechanisms, and social influences explains why individuals sometimes make ethically bad decisions that seem obvious to others.
  • Addressing these factors, organisations and individuals can better navigate ethical dilemmas and foster environments that promote moral integrity.
  • In majority of cases the skills gap in leaders is exposing individuals, managers and leaders to both personal and organisational reputational and legal risk.

  • Leaders need to recognise when “organisational betrayal” exists within their organisation – as the levels of trust will be too low to successfully engage employees without external validation and supports.

  • The gaps in expectations of  leaders and modelled behaviour of leaders significantly impact an organisation’s culture and effectiveness.

  • Addressing these gaps through improved communication, active listening, and fostering psychological safety leaders can bridge the divide and create a more engaged and productive workforce.

  • Recognising and mitigating these  gaps is not just about improving performance but also about building a workplace where every employee feels valued and heard.

“Neuroscience is the foundation for the approach we bring to every engagement, and it provides a means for consistently making informed decisions that accelerate organisational performance and well-being”.  Carolyn Grant

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