Solving the say-do-gap

by Dorian Minors

May 12, 2023

Analects  |  Newsletter

Excerpt

The “say-do-gap” is something management consultants talk about when they want executives to pay for expensive powerpoints on how the executives should do things differently. You see, the executives are saying they want to be better, but they aren’t doing the work needed to get there. It’s a position I bet most of us are familiar with. Fortunately you don’t need to buy an expensive powerpoint to solve this problem for yourself, because you have me.

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To close the say-do-gap, we need to feel some ownership of the problem, we need the social support to support the change, and we need to know how. Anything less will make us focus on how good thinking about changing feels and not actually putting in the work.

The “say-do-gap” is something management consultants talk about when they want executives to pay for expensive powerpoints on how the executives should do things differently. You see, the executives are saying they want to be better, but they aren’t doing the work needed to get there. It’s a position I bet most of us are familiar with. Fortunately you don’t need to buy an expensive powerpoint to solve this problem for yourself, because you have me.

Why is it easier to say something than do it? For over thirty years, researchers have been asking this question. Chiefly, three key ideas have emerged in answer:

  1. Not enough information. Either lacking the experience of what’s possible, or lacking the technical know-how to solve a problem is perhaps the most significant contributor to bridging the say-do gap.
  2. A lack of personal responsibility. Research indicates that, often, people simply don’t see certain kinds of problems as their problem. One might announce a commitment to sustainability, but not recognise all the ways in which they could contribute.
  3. It doesn’t feel practical. Lastly, people are pragmatic, and concerning oneself with sustainability often feels less urgent than dealing with more immediate crises and concerns.

These are all important reasons, but an even more crucial reason people regularly fail to bridge the say-do gap lies in the brain.

In humans (and, in fact, in all mammals), the anticipation of a reward is far more exciting to us than the actual outcome itself. The same regions of the brain that respond to things like chocolate, cocaine, and morphine, are the exact same regions that respond to actually recieving those things. In fact, the higher the potential reward, the higher the activation, and in some cases, the activation is entirely gone by the time the reward actually arrives. It’s the reason revenge fantasies are so satisfying. And just like revenge fantasies, it’s the reason it feels so good to say something, and one of the reasons we don’t then bother to do it. Particularly when we consider the three barriers to actually implementing change above.

How to close the Say-Do-Gap

To move from the excitement of anticipating change to enacting it, we need three ingredients.

The first is ownership. Telling people what to do, or how to do it, is a notoriously bad way to get people to make change. To want to make change, people must discover the “why” themselves. This is often called the ‘a-ha’ moment or a moment of ‘insight’, and these insights happen in the brain when our old connections meet new ones.

The second is social support. Social rewards are some of the most powerful, acting on reward-centres in the brain to a similar extent as cocaine. Having a strong sense of who is on board for your journey of change, and recieving the reinforcement that provides is critical to the success of moving from saying something to doing it. But social support is not enough, and might be detrimental. Smokers who announce that they’re quitting smoking are less likely than silent quitters to actually pull through. This is because in the same way as anticipation is as or more rewarding than the reward itself, so too are these positive social signals.

Which brings us to the last, and most important, ingredient, a how. We spend our entire lives creating patterns of thinking and responding to the world around us. This process is reflected in the brain. It’s very difficult indeed to change these old patterns into new ones. The power of knowing why a change is needed and having the support to do it is often not enough to break habits, especially when simply discovering these things and anticipating them is so rewarding. This is made worse by the fact that knowledge about why something should be done lives in a different part of the brain than how—intentions and actions are not connected until we connect them. To make real, lasting change, it is absolutely essential to make that connection. To move from the why to the how and begin building the structures that will support these new behaviours and actions.

Alright, fine, so you might need to buy that powerpoint after all, but at least I saved you a few slides.


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