With the best intentions 

We judge ourselves by our intentions, but we judge others by their actions. For years this saying has stuck with me. When I’m driving and I accidentally cut someone off, I feel bad but know it was unintentional. When another driver cuts me off, do I just assume they are a rude jerk? It’s my inclination to think that way, and I suspect that’s human nature and we all do it. But when I think back to this saying and ask myself ‘am I judging them by their action or their intention?’ I find I can give that driver the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they didn’t see me and they are in their car feeling awful.

I’ve used this saying as a barometer to help me give that benefit of the doubt to others in many situations, and it’s helpful. I’m less likely to react, and more likely to seek a solution if I go into an interaction assuming that other people’s intentions are positive. When coaching staff members, whether it’s managers addressing performance issues or coworkers navigating miscommunication and hurt, I caution people against attributing motive. Just address the actions you see, don’t assume you know why they act that way. This opens the door for real communication.

While thinking this way has been helpful in my interactions with others, recently I’ve been realizing that I’ve only been paying attention to half of the saying. Yes, it’s important to look past others’ actions and see the intention behind it. Often people don’t realize how they are coming across, and delving into motivation and intention can actually change behavior.

But what about me? I tend to give myself a pass on my actions because I know the intention behind it. Is that good enough? Other people don’t know my intention, and even if they do, does that help? In my traffic analogy, if I cut someone off they still have to quickly react to another car in their way, hit their brakes, prepare for the unknown. If they know I didn’t see them and feed badly about it, will that lessen the adrenaline response? Not really.

We spend a lot of time in HR helping others navigate interpersonal relationships. We expect them to focus on actions and behaviors, and to learn to work together with people that they might not choose on their own. But what about our interactions with coworkers? When we blow it, with the best of intentions, are we quick to apologize? If our words or actions are misconstrued, do we take ownership for the miscommunication, or do we assume that it’s on the other person to figure out what we meant? We spend a lot of time and energy working to make life better for our staff, and it’s important that they see us as knowledgeable professionals. It can be humbling to say ‘that came out wrong’ or ‘that’s not what I intended’ or simply ‘I’m sorry’ with no qualifiers (no ‘I’m sorry, but… or ‘I’m sorry you felt that way’). I’m a fan of the now outdated expression ‘my bad’ because it takes ownership. It was my bad, not yours.

I’m challenging myself to stop giving myself a pass just because my intentions were good. I’m owning my actions, however they come across to others. Can I challenge you to do the same?

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