Overview – Symbolic actions

Symbolic actions are a form of non-verbal communication where everything a leader does (rather than ‘says’) symbolises important information to employees. Symbolic actions are based on the premise that ‘actions speak louder than words’.

This very powerful communication tactic is often overlooked for its potential to reinforce a leader’s words. For example, when a new CEO joined a mining company, he removed his office door and walls to signal his commitment to open communication. He backed this up with regular walkabouts inviting every employee to talk to him directly. One of the outcomes? A dramatic improvement in the company’s safety record. In addition, where a leader focuses their attention, and the corresponding actions they take, communicate to employees what’s really important to that leader, despite the rhetoric. For example, a leader’s communication about the implementation of essential cost-cutting initiatives means little if employees know the leader’s attention and actions are focused on delivery of the new company jet.

Grey TickThis tactic is useful for:


Ensuring there is no credibility gap between what a leader says and what a leader does.
Influencing the organisation’s culture by role-modelling its values and ‘walking the walk and talking the talk’.

cloudyThings to consider:


Underscore all your words with appropriate action. Keep in mind that actions define leadership, just as actions define people’s character.
Align your actions with what is being communicated in all the organisation’s channels, including print, electronic and face-to-face. A gap between the ‘say’ and ‘do’ undermines a leader’s credibility. For example, a leader who espouses the organisation’s view that employees are its most important asset but then acts with disregard for employee well-being will be regarded with suspicion and mistrust. That action will diminish the credibility of anything the leader might say in the future.
Ensure consistency of leadership behaviour across the organisation. Inconsistent actions by leaders erode the potency of important organisational messages. They also convey to employees that tolerance of a variance in behaviour by maverick or unconventional leaders means it is acceptable to act outside the required standards.

Tone BulbHelpful tip:


Be sensitive to the impact of your actions by noting employees’ response to your communications, both verbal and non-verbal. Constructively ask for feedback through face-to-face meetings or questionnaires. This helps develop greater self-awareness regarding the meaning employees derive from your actions, some of which you may not even be conscious of.
Category: Face to Face