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When Your Impact Is Bad, Your Intentions Do Not Matter

NYS Attorney General Letitia James
NYS Attorney General Letitia James gives press conference on Cuomo report.

The recent revelations from New York State Attorney General Letitia James’ report on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s pattern of sexual harassment have both saddened and angered many people, and for good reason. The report’s conclusions are troubling in and of themselves (and the issue of sexual harassment will be addressed in my next post). Mr. Cuomo’s continued denial, rationalization and externalization of responsibility makes his behaviors worse in many ways. Again and again, he has said various versions of “It was meant to convey warmth,” or “My intention was to help her.”

This is only one dramatic instance, however, of something I hear from leaders on a regular basis. As a coach to executives, some of whom have a history of problematic behavior (albeit less than Mr. Cuomo), I frequently hear similar versions of this:

“I’m not yelling. I’m passionate.”

“I was told to ‘shake things up.'”

“I was challenging them to do more than they thought they could.”

There is a fundamental lesson of leadership that Mr. Cuomo, and anyone who says a version of these statements, clearly has not learned. In the business world, and in all interpersonal interactions, when the impact of your behavior is harmful, what you say your intentions are really isn’t relevant. No one can see your intentions – those are private and known only to you. People will judge you based on what you do and how you make them feel, rather than what you say.

When confronted with the reality of their impact on others, some executives say, “Well, that’s their impression…” or “If that is their experience…”. The end of those sentences, often left unsaid, is “…they are wrong, but I’ll act like I am paying attention.” This type of rationalization and externalization minimizes the leader’s responsibility and denies people’s experience. In all likelihood, the leader will repeat the same behaviors in short order.

There are psychological processes that speak to some of this. There is a concept called “The Fundamental Attribution Error” in social psychology that says we use different criteria to evaluate our own behavior than we do when evaluating others’. In other words, if I do something wrong, it is explainable. If you do something, it is because you are not a good person. The unfortunate problem with this is that when we are not self-aware, our self-attributions will blind us to how we make others feel. And other people largely determine how successful you are as a business leader.

The reality of interpersonal communication is people rely on how someone’s behavior makes them feel and think to ascertain “truth.” People’s words contribute relatively little to our experience, compared to our own emotions and reactions. This is especially true when we encounter someone’s recurring pattern of behavior over time.  When we have the same reaction in response to a leader’s behavior multiple times, we rely on those feelings to tell us who that person is.

At the end of the day, we do not know what a leader’s intentions are. Especially politicians. All we have to go by is their impact: How the person makes us feel and think when they interact with us. According to the report, Mr. Cuomo’s behavior harmed dozens of women, and created a hostile work environment. Whatever his intentions, he should have known better. His lack of self-awareness and denial of responsibility is a potentially fatal flaw. But he is not a one-off or a “bad apple” and this is not just about sexual harassment. This situation should be an object lesson to all leaders: Know what your impact is and understand how you make others feel. People will follow you, or throw you to the wolves, based on their reactions, not what you tell them.