Act on warning signs of hypocrisy

Monkey peering at its own reflection in a hand mirror

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

“Do what I say, not what I do.” How many times have you heard that said in jest? This saying describes a double standard. It’s a sign of hypocrisy and insincerity.  

Hypocrisy implies it’s OK for me to act to a lesser standard, but not you. Now most of the time it’s said tongue in cheek. But there’s often a hint of truth as well. We know we’re being two-faced, but don’t want to change what we’re doing.

Signs of hypocrisy

We’re all guilty of hypocrisy at times. Think of people who drive too fast, then rant about teenagers doing the same thing. Or those who drink to excess, while criticising others’ out-of-control behaviour.

No-one is ever totally consistent.

But saying one thing and doing another can confuse and frustrate others. Partners or work colleagues may feel betrayed if it happens too often. And children may feel let down or hurt.

Teens are especially quick to pounce on hypocritical teachers or parents. They may pretend they don’t care about the adults in their lives. But most are searching for guidance. They need clear role models to learn appropriate ways of behaving.

Teens copy what others do

Teens actively seek out role models to copy.

They experiment with all sorts of behaviours and beliefs. It’s as if they’re trying on various lifestyles for size, to see which ones suit them. They want to find out what kind of person they want to be in future.

Helpful role models display positive values that lead to positive behaviours. Unhelpful role models display values and behaviours that can lead to problems. Because teens are open to new behaviours, they’re easily influenced.

Be a good role model

Teachers, parents, celebrities, bosses, colleagues and friends can all be role models.

If someone sees you as a role model, that’s very flattering. But it’s a time for you to reflect on your own behaviour. Can you be a good role model if you’re guilty of hypocrisy?

Just telling others how to behave doesn’t work. If you’re not living up to your values, you have little credibility. What about those sports stars who were exposed as cheats? What message did that send to the followers who idolised them?

Actions speak louder than words

There’s a reason the saying, “Actions speak louder than words,” has been around for a long time. It contains more than a grain of truth. Most people take more notice of what you do than what you say.

You can ramble on about respect, equality and non-discrimination as long as you like. But no-one will believe you if you continually put others down. 

They’ll think you’re being a hypocrite.

And you can talk about self-motivation and hard work till you’re out of breath. But no-one will believe you if you ride on everyone’s coat tails. Over time, people get to know who weasels out of tasks. Or which colleagues take the credit for others’ work. They see which managers play games and manipulate their staff.

These actions are show little respect or empathy for others. The victims feel as if they’ve been exploited or manipulated. And they may become more cynical about the motives of others.

Be sincere

If you want others to trust in your values, you must be sincere. You need to show you are worthy of being a role model. This means consistently living by the values you want others to follow. Showing by your behaviour how these values work in practice.

Lead by example

You need to lead by example, otherwise you’ll be dismissed as being a hypocrite. Then your kids or staff will turn to someone else as a role model.

So be aware of the consequences of what you say and how you act. Make sure the two match up. And take note of any warning signs of hypocrisy – before it’s too late.

NB: A small percentage of people without remorse or empathy deliberately deceive others. Their outward behaviour hides their inner motivations. As they don’t wish to change, we’re not concerned with them here.

Why don’t values and behaviour match?

There may be two reasons that your values and behaviours don’t match up. Either you don’t really believe in what you say you believe in. Or something is stopping you from living up to your own values.

1 You’re unsure of your values

In the first case, you may not have thought about your values. You’ve adopted the way of life and values of someone close to you. But you haven’t questioned if this is really the way you want to live. You may even be hiding your true values to avoid disapproval.

Whatever the reason, you’re being pulled in two directions:

Firstly, towards the life you think you should live to please others.

Secondly, towards your real or hidden values and beliefs.

If this is so, learn how to identify what’s important to you. Then you can live your own life, not someone else’s.

2 Some issue is stopping you

Many factors can stop you following your values. They can be internal or external issues.

Internal issues may be a lack of motivation, initiative, knowledge or problem-solving skills. External factors may be financial, work, family or health problems.

And let’s be realistic – the world isn’t perfect, and no-one can live up to their values 100% of the time. 

We’re all hypocrites at times.

Take the case of John

John’s a good-hearted man who values fairness, self-restraint, and respect for others.

However last week he faced an internal crisis.

His exhausting work week was topped off by a flat tyre on the way home on Friday evening. While he struggled to fix it, his wife Katie messaged. Their middle teenager Ben had been suspended from school.

John had been worried about Ben for a while. Last year they’d been best mates. Now Ben was sullen and critical.

Hungry, tired and irritated, John dreaded facing a houseful of rowdy teenagers. Sure enough, as soon as he walked into the house, Ben started mimicking every word he said.

Being laughed at was the last straw for John.

Acting against his values

After ordering Ben into his room, John stood over him yelling. 

Ben stared up at his father with narrowed eyes. Then he turned his back, put on his headphones and resumed his computer game.

Motionless, John suddenly saw himself from Ben’s point of view: red-faced, fists clenched. Deranged. Full of hypocrisy.

Shame seeped through him. Horrified, he walked out.

Using mindful reflection

That night John thought for a long time. Finally he grasped why Ben was angry with him.

Last year when Ben was out of sorts, John hadn’t taken much notice. He’d been stressed at work, sleeping badly and finding it hard to control his irritability. So when Ben mentioned a friend was shoplifting, John told Ben to stay away from someone so stupid.

Now he remembered Ben’s sudden look of fear. He’d seemed crushed. Then easy-going Ben had instantly reappeared. John had convinced himself he’d imagined Ben’s fear. But from then on, Ben simmered with rage towards John.

What kind of misery had Ben been through over the past months?

Making amends

John wanted to make amends. Ben needed to know his dad cared and wanted to help. The next day, John took Ben aside. Cautiously he asked if Ben remembered that day last year.

At first Ben wouldn’t talk, but soon his pent-up anger surfaced. John let Ben talk without interruption. He knew if he messed up now, he might destroy their relationship forever.

After Ben finished talking, he ignored John and started surfing the internet on his phone.

John forged ahead anyway. He’d just apologised when Ben erupted again. He shouted that it was too late – he’d handled the problem on his own. John could butt out.

John sat till Ben subsided into gloom again. He knew he could only regain Ben’s trust by listening without judgment. And he had to admit his fault without excuses.

He also knew he had to commit to both:

being fully present with the family more often

dealing with his irritability and stress levels.

John knew he’d let his whole family down.

Trust and intimacy were still among his core values. But he’d learned how easy it was to lose trust and respect of those he cared for. How easy it was to show signs of hypocrisy.

And all because he hadn’t taken any notice when he first started slipping into being insincere. 

Years to develop, minutes to undo

“Years in the making, minutes in the undoing.”

Another saying among dozens that all express the same idea. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to develop trust with others. All that work is destroyed in an instant if you act thoughtlessly.

The same goes for being honest, or acting with integrity. It only takes a small lapse. Then you’ll struggle to regain your good reputation.

Now John is careful to maintain trust with others, no matter who they are. He’s kept his word about spending time with family every week. And he’s fully present so he really understands how they’re managing.

Only make promises you can keep

One important part of trust is keeping your word. Before you make a promise, think carefully.

Are you really serious about what you’re promising? Can you deliver? Or are you just saying this to keep others quiet for the moment.

If so, there’ll be a reckoning later.

If you don’t deliver, you’ll lose trust and credibility with others. They’ll feel let down and resentful. And they’ll be wary of you from then on.

Admit your failings

It’s been hard for John to admit his failings. For many years, he’s done a great job living up to his values. He’s only really slipped in the last year.

At least he’s willing to fix the situation. So he’s admitted his fault and what needs to be done.

But he doesn’t waste time beating himself up. What good would that do? Far better to use his energy to solve the problem. So he needs to work out why he started being a hypocrite and acting against his values.

Values build purpose in life

John’s deep belief in the value and worth of others means he finds meaning in helping and caring for others. Unfortunately he tends to take on too much. He now realises when he’s too busy for too long, he becomes exhausted. And that’s when things take a turn for the worse. He loses patience with others at times, and feels as if he’s on the verge of burn-out.

Self-care is an important value

With a demanding family and job, John’s energies are limited. He’s had to learn to care for himself. Now he politely refuses some requests for help from workmates. Instead, he suggests other solutions to their dilemmas.

He’s also walking, and playing sport or games with family in the evenings. The kids appreciate his more relaxed attitude and closeness. Tension levels in the house have also dropped. John and Ben are now on track to re-establish their relationship.

Self-awareness is key

John was aware of how far he’d moved from his core values. This was key to him changing his behaviour. He resisted the temptation to brush Ben’s dilemma away. And he was honest enough to analyse his own behaviour.

He saw he’d slipped into the mindset of, “Do what I say, not what I do.” Knowing his kids would view him as being a hypocrite drove him to change.

Now he’s refocussed on living more in line with his values. And his family is all the happier for it.

So the next time you’re guilty of being a hypocrite, think of John. Do you want to salvage your relationships with others? If so, take steps now. Stop falling back on the tired old, “Do what I say, not what I do.”

Avoid signs of hypocrisy and make sure you act in line with your values.

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