Aligning Intent with Impact

July 16, 2021

This is the Too Many Trees newsletter, where I share what I’ve been writing and reading in the realm of leadership and personal development. My coaching practice is centered around the idea that we are more effective in moving towards our goals when we become more conscious and intentional in focusing our time and attention, and learn how our unconscious patterns are holding us back. If you know somebody that could benefit from my perspective, please forward this to them or let them know they can set up a free intro chat with me.

I’ve been reflecting on impact and intent recently, in part because I just finished reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. The social justice maxim that impact matters more than intent resonates with me, as we should focus on the hurt that people experience rather than whether the hurt was intended. And I appreciate that we need to put the onus onto the more privileged/powerful person to change their behavior and understand the impact they have, rather than the less privileged/powerful person to “lighten up” or “have a sense of humor” or “get over it”.

This can show up in other less charged ways. Leaders often want to be “nice” and liked by their team, so they don’t offer any criticism, and instead act as a cheerleader. And yet the impact is that people on their team don’t get the feedback they need to improve. In the leader’s intent to be “nice”, they are actually not doing their jobs of giving their team the information they need to succeed. And because they have power over their team, they rarely get that feedback. Nobody is served well in that scenario.

When talking to my coach this week, I shared a similar situation in that sometimes I fail to speak up with certain clients, and realized it was because I feared they would get threatened or wouldn’t like me, so I didn’t push them even though they needed to hear what I had to say. I was letting my fear and anxiety around being liked get in the way of doing what’s best for the client.

What I find interesting here is that intent actually may align with impact. When I stay silent out of fear, my intent is to protect myself, and I have less impact as a coach. When my intent is to serve my client powerfully, I have greater impact by giving them the feedback that allows them to grow and learn. The same applies to leaders with their teams.

Generalizing broadly, I suspect that when one’s intent is self-serving, the impact will go awry. Most people act to serve themselves, by protecting their own self-image in trying to be nice or funny or impress others. And therefore they speak or take action without a thought as to how they will impact others. And those with more privilege or power can continue acting in such ways without ever experiencing consequences or getting feedback on the impact they are having.

Meanwhile, those that consider the impact on others in their intent are more likely to have their intended impact. They are looking at the broader system rather than just how it affects them, and are therefore more aware of the second-order effects their actions will have. They are looking beyond their own interests and can see the bigger picture, and thus have a better sense of how the system might respond to them.

So when I consider whether to say something these days, I check in with myself on my intent in speaking up or staying silent. Am I staying silent to preserve my own equanimity and avoid anxiety, or to give the other person space to reflect? Am I speaking up out of reactive anger or fear in the moment, or to serve the other person? Why Am I Talking? If I intentionally consider the impact on others before speaking and acting, and open myself to feedback on how others are experiencing my words and actions, I am more likely to have the impact I intend, and so intent and impact start to align.

I hope this is a useful distinction to help you evaluate your own intent and actions. Did I have my intended impact? I’d love to hear any feedback you have on whether this makes sense to you, and whether it’s something you could apply in your own life.


And now for the normal personal development content:

LinkedInThese are ideas or questions that help my clients (or myself), and that I share via LinkedIn to help a wider audience.

  • What conversations are you avoiding? When you don’t speak up about what you are seeing, you are pretending things are okay when they aren't, and nothing can move forward without acknowledging that reality. Having difficult conversations about expectations will help drive clarity and alignment.

  • When should you be deferential, and when should you challenge? Defaulting to either challenge or silence will not always serve you. So it helps to get clear on when something is important enough to you to consciously choose to speak up.

  • How do you find your fellow travelers? There’s an African proverb "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." If we can find others who are heading our way, we can share the road together, support each other, and learn from each other. But we can only do that by sharing our journey.

  • What makes you different and unique? I was approached recently by a potential client and in helping her think about how to approach an interview, I realized I wasn’t the coach who could offer her the most value. Getting clear about your unique value allows you to say No to the marginal opportunities and continue searching for the opportunities that allow you to add the most value.

Articles and resources I’ve found interesting:

  • I appreciated a recent Brene Brown podcast, where she describes a distinction between “armored leadership, being a knower and being right, versus daring leadership, being a learner and getting it right. In a culture and within ourselves where there is armor around being a knower and being right, not knowing is perceived as weakness.” What happens when you let go of needing to be the one with the answer, and can ask the question instead?

  • The Remote Debate Shows the Brittle State of Modern Management -“Good management finds people’s strengths and finds ways to use those strengths to make everybody win, because managers are meant to be a force multiplier of those under them, not to make sure they’re not taking too many bathroom breaks.

  • I’ve been reading the book The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine Arons, and it resonates a lot with me, as somebody who can get overstimulated, but also has a powerful intuition due to how much I absorb. If you’re curious to learn more, you can read this Forbes interview with Arons or this first-hand account describing the DOES acronym to identify HSPs (Depth of processing, Overstimulation, Emotional reactivity or Empathy, Sensing the subtle).

Thanks for reading! See you in a couple weeks.