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Newsletter: Intentions and Actions

Jun 20, 2010 7:25:00 AM / by Tim McCarthy

Often our intentions in business are quite different than our actions, which causes organizational and communication dissonance. [more]

At a team meeting recently, Bill Leamon said something I hope I never forget:

“We judge ourselves by our intentions, but we judge others by their actions.”

He laughed when I made such a big deal about the comment. I wrote it down and told him I needed to think deeply about that statement. He simply said, “I probably picked it up somewhere but I don’t know where.”

Wherever it came from, it’s a pretty compelling statement to me. Here’s why:

For years, I’d heard and tried to follow the old saw that people judge you by your actions not your intentions.

And of course we’ve all been told “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

So, as most of us do, I’ve tried hard to match action to intention, often failing and often succeeding.

But I’d never considered the paradox of how I judge myself versus how I judge others. And it stops me cold.

On a personal level, I shudder to think of 100,000 times my intense personality caused me to dig into someone with my laser cutter mouth. Alice has always said that even the tone of my voice can bring people to their knees.

I now imagine the aftermath of a tense exchange with one of my children way back when:

My view: “Well, that was rough but my intention is good – I have to make the right behavior clear to him/her.”

Their view: “Wow, that’s pretty bad behavior for a Dad that loves me; couldn’t he have just said it a little nicer?”

As Bill said, I was judging my intentions while my kids were judging my actions.

And no ground was gained. In fact, I’m sure many times it was lost.

In business it gets even hairier because with my kids and those close to me I was able to “make up” for my human errors over time (just as they “make up” for theirs.)

The business picture that comes back includes many customer actions I misread.

Let’s say the customer demanded a price reduction.

My judgment of her actions says she’s a cheapskate or maybe he’s just trying to screw us.

What’s worse, my temptation then becomes to screw him back.

When I coulda shoulda woulda just asked the customer, “What’s behind your price reduction request?”

Maybe I’d find out, as I actually did several times, that it was temporary pressure from their management to cut across the board and that once they got into the new budget they could return our losses.

I remember one time I asked a huge client what the intention of their price cut request was and when he said it was a temporary restraint, we were able to develop a better product for less money by creating a three year contract. Everybody won.

So, how does this translate into our current work?

For me, it’s now an even trickier issue than when I was in business. That is, more of my time now is spent working with non-profit executives where business-related actions (vs. intentions) are often harder to decipher.

That is because these executives received traditional non-profit education and training which is client – not business – focused.

So, when one of them takes an action that makes no sense to me (who is educated and trained in business discipline) I must be very careful (and patient, I might add) to separate their action from their intention.

When I see an exec spending 40% of their staff time on events that produce 15% of their income, I must remember that their actions belie their intention.

Event based revenue production is simply what they were taught to do. They run events because fund raising, the most distasteful part of their job, must be done and events have traditionally been the best way to raise money.

My job is then to change both their intention and their action to help them develop non ask-based sources of revenue. Social businesses that can create more sustainable revenue streams so that they can do more of what they intend to do – serve those who need and deserve our care and compassion.

And it’s often tough for me to convince them by my actions that my intention is not to make them business people, but instead my intention is to help them grow their mission.

How many times in a day or a week do we make that same mistake – seeing our intentions but judging others’ actions?

I believe, in my case and maybe yours, it’s frequent.

Take a moment and look at how that affects your organization, for-profit or non-profit. If you’re like me, separating actions and intentions will help you find a few things to fix.

Tags: Newsletter, Planning, Decision making, Measurement

Tim McCarthy

Written by Tim McCarthy

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