Intent vs. Impact – “That’s not quite what I meant…”
There are numerous comments uttered every day based on the premise, “That’s not quite what I meant”. Statements such as, “I don’t see color” or “Oh you are too sensitive”, or “You take things the wrong way”, can cause huge misunderstandings and frequently cause major rifts in work environments.
Take the Italian Vogue slavery statements about their new trendy jewelry idea. They created a line of earrings with the accompanying text, “If the name brings to mind the decorative traditions of the women of colour who were brought to the southern United States during the slave trade, the latest interpretation is pure freedom.” Huffington Post 2011/Aug/23
They attempted to fix it but made it worse, so they finally stopped the campaign. Why did Vogue’s fix not work? They never asked anyone for help or didn’t ask the right people for assistance. These comments were not intended to be an insult, rude, or anything other than good intentions and to sell jewelry. Unfortunately, when ignorance disguises itself as outward opinion, it will create friction and polarize a work environment. Once words are out there, they cannot be taken back. Unlike a movie production, you cannot splice life.
Additionally, intent versus impact does not only apply to comments. The intent of actions are as powerful as comments, sometimes even more so: shunning others who are different, leaving certain employees out of plans, lunches, and exclusion from certain teams. Some intentional acts are done just for comfort: people like to be comfortable so they choose people who look like them to engage in activities with. For example, when a person finds themselves alone in public they will stand or sit with others who look like them. Cultural mistakes are inevitable when building a successful organization; however, once mistakes are realized, immediately correcting them usually lessens the sting of the blunders.
How do organizations successfully handle the problem of intent versus impact situations? First, assess the organization’s communication strengths and develop a plan to boost weaknesses. Additionally, address the behaviors when they happen and ensure a change is implemented to alleviate such behaviors, e.g. training, counseling, focus groups, etc. The ultimate defense against intent versus impact is the CEO, key Executives, and business owners to take decisive actions to alleviate these negative situations. Leadership must not only speak about this, but they also should make it clear that any intentional use of intent will be handled appropriately.
Intent versus impact is a situation that if not handled correctly or is ignored will fester and affect all facets of the organization. Ultimately leaders should make their own positive intent versus impact commitments to ensure success within the organization.
Treste Loving is a Global Market Consultant with a specialty in Diversity and Inclusion. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 757.748.2590.