Susan had worked hard to become Principal at Walden Elementary School. She had paid her dues as a teacher for 10 years while she completed a Doctorate in Education. She took over as Principal three years earlier and she hit the ground running. She had friends on the staff and she cared passionately about the children. She wanted what was best for each one of them. Now here she was today, in front of all of her students, their parents and their teachers having to say goodbye. She had lost her job. Her last words to them in the goodbye assembly were “My intentions were always to do what was best for the children”.
There were probably a number of contributing factors that led to this moment. It’s very seldom just a single issue. But one of the factors contributing to Susan’s abrupt end may go back to a gap between her intentions and how her team saw those intentions.
I think that Leaders usually have positive intentions. They do what they do because they think that they are doing the right thing. And it’s not just leaders is it? Very few of us do the wrong things intentionally. Nobody goes home in the evening and brags to their significant other about how they “really made everyone’s life a living hell that day”. Do they? And yet it sometimes seems that way to the people with whom we work.
One of the problems is that other people can’t see our positive intentions. What they see – of course – are our behaviors. And then they climb what Chris Argyris called the Ladder of Inference. They see our behaviors, make assumptions and draw conclusions about why we are doing what we are doing. And then they act on those conclusions. If we are lucky, they recognize our good intentions. More often, they decipher our behavior through their own filters and arrive at an interpretation that may not be reflective of what we intended. When I offer a suggestion to one of my kids I’m trying (most of the time) to help them do something better and to be more successful. They don’t always see it that way. If I’m not careful, they can interpret it as criticism or even as an attack. And then they respond based on their interpretation. Either they get defensive, or maybe they push back and counter attack.
Susan’s good intentions didn’t always come through to her staff. She wanted what was best for each individual child. She advocated for them. She pushed her teachers to put the needs of the child first. All admirable motives. Her team saw her behaviors through a different lens. She was seen as unrealistic, as too demanding, as being non-supportive and autocratic.
It’s important to recognize that the gap between intention and perception is a two-way street. It not only affected how the teachers saw her, but also how Susan interpreted their actions. Increasingly, she saw the behaviors of her staff as being resistant to her direction (probably not wrong there). When they brought up concerns, she interpreted their questions and ideas as reflecting a lack of motivation and commitment to the children. Or, as being an attack on her leadership. And she of course responded by pushing and advocating even harder. Until the whole thing spiraled out of control and she lost the good will of the team, and ultimately her job.
It didn’t have to be that way. Having good intentions is a great start. But it’s not enough. You have to constantly work to ensure that the people you interact with – at work or at home – perceive those good intentions.
It Starts With You: Be Aware Of Your Own Motives And Intentions
Human beings are pretty complex. We have different levels. Some of the levels are sitting up close to the surface and are easy to recognize while others are pushed further down into our subconscious. We may not be completely aware of them. We may have an intention that is clear as day to us, around which we focus much of our attention and energy. It’s also likely that we have other intentions, secondary aspirations and needs that are also influencing our behaviors and that are less clear to us.
Susan’s primary intention focused on doing what was best for the children in her school. But it appears that there were a variety of other intentions and motives influencing her behavior. She wanted respect. She worked hard to gain the credentials that she thought would provide that respect. She wanted her school to be the best in the district, to outperform the other elementary schools on the metrics that were used to gauge their performance. She wanted to be right. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that her awareness of her own motivations and intentions was, at best, incomplete. Without that self-awareness, Susan’s behaviors were probably influenced in a variety of unconscious ways by those secondary intentions. She acted in ways that probably sent mixed messages to her stakeholders. Creating alignment between our intentions and how others perceive them begins with self-awareness.
Increase The Accuracy of Their Perceptions
As much as possible, you have to make those good intentions transparent. Transparency doesn’t mean over exposure or too much information. Transparency is about being appropriately open and honest about why you are doing what you are doing. It is about taking the time and making the effort to explain why you took an action – even a simple one – so that people’s perceptions of your behavior are more in line with your intentions. For example, if you are a working with your office door closed today, don’t assume that the team understands it is because you’ve been slammed with a last-minute request from your boss. They may very well have come to their own conclusions about why you are behind closed doors today: He’s working on layoff’s, She’s antisocial, She thinks she’s better than everyone else, He’s looking for a new job. In the absence of the truth, people will fill in the blanks and come to their own conclusions. Susan’s staff often described her as being, “hard to read”. For ongoing, mutually interdependent relationships, that can’t be a good thing.
Take Responsibility For Both Sides
The quality of your communication matters. There is always the potential for ambiguity and misunderstanding. Recognize the challenge and go out of your way to make your communication clear and specific. It’s better to over-communicate than to mis-communicate.
Take responsibility for checking to ensure that the person you are talking to really did understand what you meant. To do that, ask clarifying questions (remember to make the intentions behind those questions clear) and really listens to the answers you receive. If their understanding is off target, circle back and reframe your explanation. Don’t rationalize that “it’s their responsibility to ask questions if they are unclear”. It’s in your interests to make sure that they are clear. Remember their perceptions become their reality. Their response and behavior will be in alignment with that reality. Their behavior matters to you. It’s up to you to make sure that their reality is accurate.
Recognize That No One Has To Do What You Want Just Because You Want It
Most of us are mutually dependent with our colleagues, direct reports and the people senior to us in our organizations. All of those people represent potential stakeholders. Clarifying your intentions and ensuring that they perceive you accurately are fantastic starters. But they may not be enough.
Recognize that their commitment matters. They are volunteers in your life. Even if you are their Boss, they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do. They have a choice. They can just go though the motions or they can give you their discretionary effort. The way you work with your stakeholders will either affirm your intentions and lead to their support and commitment or create a misalignment which can lead to lowered trust and resistance. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” is true more often than not. Susan’s intentions never really rang true to her staff, at Walden Elementary School, in part because of her behaviors. She was much more inclined to tell rather than to ask. She was quick to point out areas that needed improvement and there were always areas that needed improvement. She wanted it her way and any challenge to her way was met with a hammer.
There are a great many things to say about gaining commitment. I’ll be posting a variety of tools and ideas about influencing and commitment in the future. For now let me offer some very simple, very basic advice. Recognize that everybody you interact with has a choice. They can believe you – or not; they can do what you ask – or just give you lip service; they can level with you – or present a façade. Think before you act. Ask before you tell. Give people a reason to decide in your favor. Try to see the people you work with as partners, not obstacles. Value them! Operate from the perspective that “true influence means doing something with people, not doing it to them.”