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“Others see our behaviors, but do not know our intentions. We know our intentions, but do not see our behaviors.”

This simple phrase was the foundation of a very successful leadership program developed a number of years ago; one that I regularly use in my coaching practice. It is one of those memorable expressions that has a great impact on almost everyone who reads it—not just those in leadership roles.

Think about a time when you were surprised by someone’s negative reaction to something you said or did. Was that your intention? Did you later analyze why they may have reacted that way and realize that, regardless of your intention, it was the way you delivered the message that created a negative response?

In some ways, I see the need for understanding the intentions-versus-behaviors equation more today than ever before. Organizations are trying to create collaborative environments. As a result, groups of individuals are coming together who have never worked together before. They come from diverse backgrounds, departments, and cultures. Even when the goals are clear and well aligned, these are individuals who have little or no history together. Just think about your interactions with people who are new to your team versus those you’ve known and worked with for years. New teams (even ad hoc teams) need to take time to get to know each other, discuss their different work and communication styles, and how to best work together.

My basic belief is that most people are well intentioned: It is not our intention to mislead or create mistrust. I also believe that most people have a deep desire to understand the reasoning and motivation behind people’s words and actions.

So what happens? Why do our words and actions belie our intentions? Often it’s because we are not very good at seeing our behaviors through the eyes of others. Volumes have been written on this topic, but I believe there are a few simple (not to be confused with easy!) steps you can take.

Use formal feedback and assessment tools. Formal feedback (often referred to as 360-degree feedback) from your supervisor, colleagues, direct reports, customers, and so on, can be one of the most powerful tools for self-awareness. I also suggest completing a personality (or work style) profile. While the 360 feedback will provide you with insight into how your behavior is perceived, there are numerous profiles available to help you understand the drivers of your behaviors.

Ask a trusted colleague. Many of us have trusted friends or colleagues who will give us honest feedback, but we are often shy about asking. Don’t be. Tell them honestly, “I’m trying to improve…” or, “I’m leading a new team…” Offer to do the same for them.

• As the late Steven Covey stated, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Use empathic listening to be genuinely influenced by a person, which compels them to reciprocate the listening and take an open mind to being influenced by you. This creates an atmosphere of caring, and positive problem-solving.

Become hyper-aware of others’ reactions to your words and actions in the moment. If there is any hint of confusion or negative response, seek to clarify. This does not mean continue making your case. Ask questions and genuinely solicit feedback. This skill (and it is a skill that can be learned) requires that you stop talking, stop the conversation going on in your head, and listen with both your ears and your eyes.

The bottom line, however, is the commitment to change. It’s one thing to understand your behaviors—and perhaps even some insight to the drivers—but you must commit to doing something about it. As Marshall Goldsmith wrote in his article, The Fallacy of ‘If They Understand, They Will Do’, “…if the ‘understanding equals doing’ equation were accurate, everyone who understood that they should eat healthier and work out would be in great shape.”

(1) Comment

    Jo Coulson

    Thanks very interesting blog!

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