Monday, January 29, 2020

If actions speak louder than words . . . what do yours say?

There are many reasons put forward to explain why change is so hard to initiate and so difficult to implement. Perhaps an exploration of what has been proposed as the 1/9/90 Law for blogging can throw more light on the phenomenon.

Earlier this week, I came across a mention of a supposed "law" of blogging: the 1/9/90 Law [link] . This states that of every 100 people, just one will write a blog and create content, putting forward their ideas and starting a dialog. Another nine will post comments on that blog and thus contribute to the dialog by sharing their responses to the original idea. They enrich the content created. The other 90 will read the bog . . . and do nothing else. They simply consume the content.

I have no idea whether any of this is true, but it seems plausible. If I contrast the number of people who are recorded as looking at this blog with the number who leave comments, a ratio of 9:1 seems overly generous. My own guess would be that far fewer than 9% of readers ever post any kind of comment.

However, this post is not about blogging, and my reason for mentioning the 1/9/90 Law is that it seems to me to apply really well to the topic of people's reactions to change and whatever serves as the prevailing culture and established norms in their place of work.

Maybe just one in 100 people will come up with ideas for change and decide to try to see them implemented. That one person is very likely to make him or herself unpopular as a result; perhaps even to the extent of being fired. It takes a great deal of courage to challenge the prevailing corporate culture (some would use the term foolhardiness instead) and to do so openly.

However, it does happen and there is usually a response. Maybe between 5% and 9% of people will respond by taking up the idea and looking to see if it has any merit. They will discuss it and add to it, maybe alter it somewhat, and exhibit at least some willingness to see it turned into action. If the one person who started the process is the creator, the catalyst for change, these folk are the polishers, enrichers and implementors.

Of course, if the initial idea is a bad one, they'll likely choose to leave it alone. And if the response from on high is unusually ferocious and negative, they'll probably put self-preservation above any interest the idea aroused in them. After all, it wasn't their idea. They just thought it might have something in it, and were looking to see what that something might be and how it might be made to work.

Inertia rules?

The remaining 90% will almost certainly do nothing, and outwardly register little or no interest either. Is that simply inertia or apathy? Are most people immune to curiosity; or totally unconcerned with things that might make their working lives better?

I don't think so. Some may be, but this seems to me to be an unduly negative view of the human condition. What I think is happening in that vast majority of people (be it 90% or some other number) is far more complex. Understanding it may point to why change—even beneficial change—can seem to slow to emerge and so easy to squash.

Most people accept the status quo, even if they don't like it much, because:
  • They have been led to believe that there is no other viable way.

  • They fear that being seen to be on the side of change will harm their career. Those in charge will consider them lacking in commitment, disloyal, or disaffected.

  • They have become cynical and disillusioned. They've seen so many previous attempts at change fail and noted how the instigators have been treated.

What do your actions say about you?

This brings me back to the headline of this article. If you're the one person who constantly instigates change, your actions speak of your courage (or foolhardiness), your creativity, your willingness to stand up for what you believe—and possibly your long history of being forced to change jobs and accept loss of prospects. If you're typically one of the nine or so percent of polishers and enrichers of other people's ideas, your actions likely speak about your curiosity, your ability to take an initial idea and work to improve it, your willingness to discuss many options, and your openness to change as a continual possibility. They also probably suggest that you have a better sense of self-preservation that the one percent who constantly go out on a limb.

For the rest, lack of action may be due to need (I can't afford to risk this job for anything), or satisfaction with the way things are (This works for me and I don't want it changed). But your inaction may just as easily suggest fear, cynicism, disillusionment, and a sense that the future offers few alternatives.

Which of these is right—if any of them are—only you can say. I'm not going to make any sweeping generalizations or label anyone. But I do think you might want to take a little while to think about the picture I have painted. Even if it has only some partial truth in it, it may help you reflect on what does seem to be a fairly general workplace malaise: whining about the miseries of work and doing nothing about them.

Not everyone wants to come up with new ideas. Not everyone can do it, or is willing to accept the risks. But surely everyone can think about the ideas raised, add their two cents to the discussion, and maybe support any useful initiatives that result?

Then we might have a new—and better—version of the 1/9/90 Law. One where 90% explore and support ideas, 9% produce them, and only 1% sit on their hands and complain.

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Michael D. Haberman, SPHR said...

Carmine.. a very good post. I work in HR and many, many HR people complain about always being reactive and never proactive. I suspect that many of these people are in the 90 group. I am going to post a reference to your blog so HR people can read your comments.

9:59 AM  
Anonymous said...


Great article! I think you are right that it is too simplistic to say that doing nothing is only caused by iertia or apathy.

I work in a place (related to the environment) with cynical comments everywhere! A couple of years ago, an effort were made to identify internal problems and, more importantly, to increase our awareness that all workers are part of these problems, either by our actions or our inactions. It worked a while, but we we seems to have forgotten the lesson and we're back collectively with the same behaviors. I want to thank you for this reminder to embrace change.

9:59 AM  
Tom said...

Excellent, well thought-out post!

I agree that 9% is a bit high for the number of people who will leave comments on blog posts. The same holds true for my blog, The Daily Machete.

I also agree that, in the work environment, many may just be afraid of change. It's too bad. Those who propose change - even if they're shot down - demonstrate initiative and creativity. Most employers worth their salt like their employees to have these traits.

Keep up the great work!

The Daily Machete

10:41 AM  
Anonymous said...

Hi Carmine,

Just a quick note to let you know that the nomination process of our Top Small Workplaces recognition program with The Wall Street Journal wraps up on Wednesday this week, Jan. 31. Employees and employers can nominate an organization by visiting

If you could help us spread the word during the "home stretch," we'd greatly appreciate it. If you have any questions, please let me know.

Best Regards,

Mark Harbeke
Manager of Content Development
Winning Workplaces

1:22 PM  
Dan said...

Well, another thought is that people are living out various scripts, some of them culturally induced, some of them personal. Speaking up, challenging, enriching resonate for some automatically, but not everybody, that's for sure. It's not necessarily challenging the organization that comes first; it's challenging your own scripts about who you are and what your own possibilities are that may make the first difference.

1:22 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks to all of you who added comments. I'm glad that you found this post enjoyable.

Mark, I will certainly try to spread the word for you.

Dan, I agree with what you say. Many people are held back by their own internal "voices" that tell them what they can and cannot do. However, organizational culture is a powerful force that cannot be ignored. Which comes first probably depends on the person.

Keep reading, my friends.

4:42 PM  
Dean said...

Carmine - I am posting because something about your words resonate with me and compel me to add my $0.02 . So your words lead me to action. Margaret Wheatley said "there is no distance between thinking and acting when the ideas mean something to us." What might cause us to act is it seems to me very complex but the germ that makes it go may just be that the ideas have some meaning to us. Perhaps we should work on making more meaning and then we might get more action. Just a thought.

5:45 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

An interesting thought, Dean. Thank you for posting it.

Meaning is crucial, I believe, in many cases where people face possible actions. But meaning alone won't overcome the internal pressures in many organizations to “go with the flow” and acccept the status quo as inevitable.

The choice to speak out or act is always personal—and always comes with some risks. It's the unwillingness to take any risks at all that holds so many people silent and immobile at a “public” level—even while they continue to complain about the situation privately.

Keep reading, my friend.

6:48 PM  
Dario said...

I see this every single day. Everybody just feels so much better just whining about thing instead of doing something about them.

5:32 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Sadly, Dario, you are right.

Thanks for your comment. Keep reading, my friend.

7:17 AM  

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