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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Nov 18, 2018

As leaders, we almost always have great intentions, but our intent isn’t always the same as our impact. In this episode we explore three principles for leaders when thinking about intent versus impact.


Welcome to episode 19 of the Leadership Today podcast - it’s great to have you join us today. I really appreciate those who have taken the time to share, rate and review the podcast. Here at Leadership Today our mission is “Enabling thousands of leaders to achieve results through people”, so it’s great to see the global reach of the podcast continue to grow. Today we’re looking at intent versus impact. 

As leaders, we almost always have great intentions - our intent is typically positive. However, if you’ve been leading for a while, you will recognise there are times when people might misunderstand your intent - that your intent is not the same as your impact. And that creates problems for us - it leads to miscommunication and can create distrust. 

Joseph Luft and Harri Ingham were studying group dynamics in the mid 1950s - exploring how we see ourselves versus how others see us. They developed a process that involved individuals choosing words they thought best described themselves from a list of 56 adjectives. Their peers did the same. 

Not surprisingly, they found that some words overlapped between the individual and their peers and some didn’t. They could then sort each word into one of four quadrants, based on whether a characteristic was known or unknown by the individual, and known or unknown by others. 

When the words lined up, this meant the characteristics were known to self and known to others - Luft and Ingham described this quadrant as the arena - others have called it public or open. 

Then you have words people chose for themselves that others didn’t choose - these characteristics were known to self but not others - this quadrant was called hidden, like the person was wearing a mask. 

Finally, there were words others chose to describe someone that the person didn’t choose for themselves - this is known as a blind spot. It’s also where intent versus impact gets interesting. When there's a misalignment between your intent and impact, you could argue that it’s just others’ perceptions, but those perceptions are their reality whether we agree with them or not. And a blind spot can be positive or negative - you are just as likely to be blind to a strength as you are to be blind to a weakness.

When we think about intent versus impact, there are three principles for leaders:

  1. If you want people to understand you, make your intent clear

  2. If you see people doing strange things, take the time to understand their intent

  3. Use feedback to let people know the impact they’re having

Let’s look at the first principle - If you want people to understand you, make your intent clear.

I was working with a leader who had received some feedback that his team saw his leadership style as highly directive, and almost never coaching. As I worked with him, he just couldn’t understand this feedback - he thought he was coaching his staff all the time. I asked him for an example of how he coached his team, and he said “Well, I coached one of my team members earlier today. I was walking past his desk and noticed he was doing something in Excel in a pretty inefficient way. I knew a much simpler way, so I asked him to move across. I pulled up a seat in front of his computer, and then showed him the easier way. I then suggested he do it that way next time. I coached him.” It was pretty easy to see where the impact of being directive was coming from. I asked him to replay the story, but this time from his team member’s perspective. What would it feel like to have your boss move you to one side then start working on your computer in front of your colleagues? How might the team member have interpreted the situation? He soon saw how his positive intentions could have been taken in a negative way. Even if he had done exactly the same thing, but shared his intent - that is, that he actually thought this team member was doing a great job, and wanted to help him become more efficient so he could go home earlier - the impact would have been entirely different. It’s important to make ourselves known to others, to let them into our head, and to share our intent. This will lead to greater alignment between how others see us and how we see ourselves.

Now the second principle - If you see people doing strange things, take the time to understand their intent. Our home used to have vinyl floor tiles in our living room. I walked in one day to find about a square metre of these tiles had been lifted up and placed in a pile by a combination of our three sons. They had managed to get under the edge of one tile, lifting it up, which then gave them access to several other tiles that they could then pull up, and it quickly escalated from there. Several of the tiles had cracked in the process. Now, clearly, I was pretty frustrated by this wanton destruction. It seemed like the kids were trying to vandalise and destroy the house. But I asked them - what were they trying to do? They told me that they were simply trying to build a tower out of the tiles. Understanding their intent helped me to explain their behaviour. It didn’t remove all the frustration, but it did help me to understand why they were doing what they were doing. The same is true in the workplace. People are typically logical and rational in the behaviour - it’s the perceptions of situations that often differ. So when people are doing something strange - failing to get on board with an initiative, focusing on the wrong things, whatever it might be - that the time to explore their intent. Often you will find that it’s actually a miscommunication or misunderstanding that lies at the root of the issue.

The third principle is - Use feedback to let people know the impact they’re having. As a leader you’re in a unique position to help others to decrease their blind spots. And I would encourage you to particularly focus on helping people to uncover their strengths. One of the greatest satisfactions I’ve had as a leader is encouraging people to do things that they initially didn’t think they could. I could see strengths in them that they couldn’t see in themselves.

Intent versus impact is a powerful way of improving your influencing, understanding others, and helping others to develop. Try these three leadership principles this week and let me know what impact you make.