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Intent vs. Impact: A Leader’s Most Common Way to Stumble

Alana was a brilliant scientist with a history of developing big data techniques and leading successful academic research teams. A global pharmaceutical firm recruited her as they were developing products based on data, information and insights regarding pharmaceutical usage. She was an ideal candidate to push the business through a difficult and urgent product development shift. When she arrived, she found an organization that was years behind the field in terms of technology and approach.

Immediately, Alana began shifting resources, reorganizing her team of more than 100 people, and informing other executives how she was planning to make the shift. To do this, she took over various resources and projects. Her message was that she would lead the company into the 21st century of big data. Not surprisingly, most of the executives and other employees considered her a “bull in a china shop.” They saw her as overreaching her authority, undermining their teams, lacking in focus, and disrupting years of work. Sadly, after a year in the role, she had accomplished few of her business objectives, alienated a number of people, and caused her team to stall. Moreover, she was angry that others were getting in her way. As a result of coaching, she was able to turn around her performance and make breakthrough developments in data products for the pharmaceutical industry.

Alana was guilty of one of the most common mistakes for business leaders: she confused the intent of her communication with the impact of her communication. She had generally good intent, as do most of the leaders with whom I have worked. Most executives intend to motivate their people, build the business, and grow the talent. Yet, oddly enough, the message they give others is often the opposite of what they mean to give!! For Alana, her intent was to accelerate change, but her impact was to slow things down, alienate others, and create internal strife rather than collaboration.

Let me give another example. Danny was the CEO of a global consumer products group (Note: both scenarios are real, but the names and industries are changed) who had a powerful intellect and enormous curiosity. He knew his organization needed to explore many ideas and evaluate their potential benefits, even if they did not ultimately follow through on the vast majority of them. His intent was to find the best ideas and pursue them, discarding others – even very good ones – when there were better ideas. The benefits were so clear to him that he assumed everyone else understood this as well. After conducting a 360 survey for him, I told him despite his intent, his impact was that people saw him as shifting direction or emphasis, and creating pointless work for others. This caused people to be less motivated to explore ideas because they felt the effort would be wasted. He shifted his approach, creating an internal innovation group dedicated to exploring new ideas and opportunities. For the rest of his team, he defined the critical few initiatives that remained consistent over longer time. This made them feel productive and effective, improved morale, and yielded more innovative ideas.

Why does this happen? Quite simply, people perceive their own behaviors very differently than others perceive them. We see our own behaviors as situationally based, while we attribute other people’s behavior to personality or character (known as the fundamental attribution error). In addition, what motivates one person may cause stress for another. In both of these situations, the leader saw the value of change and flexibility, while many of their team members valued stability and consistency.

How do you find out when your intent and your impact conflict?  This is always a challenge, so a few different steps are worth trying:

  • Most important, remember that other people do not see things the same way you do, do not feel the same as you, or interpret the world the way you do. Consider different people’s perspectives on things like change, drive, structure, process, big picture, and small details.
  • Ask your team for feedback on the things you are trying to accomplish, and listen to their answers. If you think they won’t be completely candid, ask your HR partner to collect the data and summarize it.
  • Ask yourself, “Am I frustrated that things aren’t moving in the direction I want, despite my best efforts?” If the answer is yes, then you may have an intent vs. impact
  • Imagine if your manager said what you are saying? What would you think? How would you feel?
  • Try a thought experiment (or maybe even a real experiment) – Imagine doing the opposite of what you have been doing and consider what would happen. If you have been pushing people hard, what would happen if you rewarded what they have already done? If you have been advocating for a point of view to no avail, what would happen if you listened to others’ points of view? If you have been promoting change, consider what would happen if you emphasized what in their environment is staying the same.

Feel free to share your experiences of intent vs. impact conflicts. I’m happy to discuss them with you to look for solutions.