“Facta non Verba”
We’re right in the middle of graduation season. Most college graduations have been held in the last week or two; most high school ceremonies are coming up this month. Graduation ceremonies have changed considerably over the years. The sense of accomplishment and advancement still survives on the part of the graduates and their families, of course, but distinguished academics have been replaced by actors and comedians as commencement speakers, and graffiti painted mortarboards and group selfies are now more prominent than either pomp or circumstance,
Among the many academic traditions that seem to have fallen out of favor in recent years is the school motto. My college motto was a Greek phrase translated as “Wisdom and Self-Control,” although I’m not sure if that was its actual meaning or just the message the administration wanted to send to 1,600 young women, since it has also been translated as “Wisdom and Self-Determination.”
My mother often told me that her grammar school motto―yes, there was a time when a free public education was taken so seriously that even grammar schools had mottos―was “per aspera ad astra,” or, “through hardships to the stars.” It turned out to be particularly apt for someone who started out married life in the Great Depression and lived through the anxiety and pain of friends and family seeing battlefield action during World War II. I don’t know if she felt she had achieved the “ad astra” part, but I’m sure she believed that her life had been “per aspera.”
My high school motto was the simple Latin phrase, “facta non verba” (“Deeds, not words”). Or in today’s parlance, walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk. As a writer and editor, words are my stock in trade, and words do have meaning and impact and influence, but they pale beside actually getting out there and doing something. In truth, words have the most meaning when they are backed up by actions, and the least when they are hollow expressions, devoid of real substance.
It is particularly important to give words the life of the deeds they represent when you are in a position of leadership, whether it is leading a team, a fighting unit, a department, or an entire company. Company mission statements that are empty words, without the backing of corresponding actions, are soon discounted by customers who have been disappointed by the actual performance.
And customers are not the only stakeholders who can be disappointed by a word-deed disconnect. Perhaps most deadly to organizations is when employees discover that management’s words sound great, but have no real meaning. Sadly, examples of what we might term “verba non facta” practices can be found in all too many organizations:
- A company espouses the importance of instituting a continuous improvement program, enlists employees to gather reams of data and holds multiple team meetings, but as weeks and months go by, it fails to implement any changes or upgrades. The words pass, the program dies a slow death, and the employees realize they can’t put faith in what the company says.
- A company pronounces its intention to have a transparent management style, keep employees informed about all important practices, procedures, and financial benchmarks, hands out P&L statements and sales reports for a few months, puts up a bulletin board filled with important announcements, but as weeks and months go by, the stream of data begins to dry up, some key decisions are revealed only to a few “inner circle” managers, and the whole initiative starts to fall apart. Employees look on it as a confirmation of their belief that management really doesn’t want them to know what’s going on.
- A company says that it wants to get the input of every employee, wants to listen to folks up and down the management chain, and seeks suggestions and ideas on a wide range of issues and concerns. Thoughtful employees put their ideas in writing, detail the reasons they think they would work, summon the courage to send them to management, and then hear…nothing. Emails get no response, even a polite acknowledgement of their effort is not forthcoming. Employees who were dedicated, enthusiastic, and courageous enough to go out on a limb with a new idea are left with the empty feeling that the company was never actually interested in anything they had to say.
In the long run, despite the good intentions behind such ideas, it is probably better for employee morale and company harmony not to embark on a new approach or initiative if management cannot make an unshakeable commitment to back up its words with its actions. If there is any doubt that what you are telling your employees may not happen, perhaps the better motto to embrace would be “silentium est aurum” (“silence is gold”).