“Practice what you preach” is a sensible enough aphorism. If something is good enough to offer as advice or set as a standard to others, it’s probably something you should be doing yourself. Furthermore, advising people to follow practices that you yourself do not observe leaves you wide open to charges of hypocrisy.
As a manager though, I realised that trying not to be a hypocrite (as I perceived it) was making me worse at my job. Why? Because it stopped me from giving good advice. Just because I was bad at managing my time didn’t mean that I shouldn’t provide feedback and advice to my reports on their time management challenges. Good advice is good advice.
But am I being a Hypocrite?
The title of this post is a lie. It is not hypocritical to give advice one doesn’t always follow, to set standards one doesn’t always meet.
I realised finally that I had been holding myself to the incorrect standard. Rather than “Practice what you preach” I had been observing what is technically known as the contrapositive: “Don’t preach what you don’t practice”. The difference is subtle, but important. With the former, you should endeavour to follow your own advice; with the latter, you are unable to even offer the advice unless you are already doing that thing.
Ultimately, the difference between the two is in the acknowledgement of one’s own humanity, with all its flaws and weaknesses. To demand standards from others that one has no intention of following oneself is hypocrisy. To set standards for others to which one aspires, but does not always meet, is simply to be human. Acknowledge and embrace that truth, and you are no hypocrite.
One Simple Trick
So much for not being a hypocrite, but how to preach what you don’t practice without seeming like one? I have found it is actually not too difficult: the “trick” is simply to acknowledge what you’re doing, to show both vulnerability and self awareness. In fact, drawing attention to your own challenges in meeting the standard being set is a good way to build trust and empathy.
Let’s take our time management example from before. If I had a report who struggled with time management, I might give the feedback in this form:
“I’ve noticed you’ve had some trouble with time management. You tend to take on many things, which sometimes means the quality of your work suffers. This is something I struggle with too! Time management is hard, and I often end up making the same mistakes as you. But if you don’t get on top of this, it’s going to limit your ability to succeed and grow in your career. My own time management is something that I constantly work on improving.”
What this does:
✅ Gives the feedback/advice clearly and unreservedly.
✅ Builds empathy and trust by showing vulnerability and self knowledge.
✅ Defuses charges of hypocrisy by demonstrating that the feedback/advice applies to you as well.
Your job as a manager is to offer your reports the absolute best advice, feedback, and expectations you can. Do not let “practice what you preach” stop you from saying what your team needs to hear.
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