Understanding Intent vs. Impact in Driving Workplace Change

By Jill Krumholz | Posted on July 13, 2023

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Every episode of the TV show “The Office” is a lesson in the difference between intent and impact. Michael Scott, the branch manager, perennially engages in behavior that he truly believes is in the best interest of his employees or that will promote the branch’s success. Everyone but Michael can see that his words and actions make others uncomfortable and often offend, but Michael is so confident in his convictions that he cannot fathom that his actions might result in conflict and an uncomfortable work environment. 

The Office may be an extreme example, but it clearly depicts the difference between intent and impact

In this article, we discuss:

  • How Intent and Impact Differ

  • Workplace Examples

  • Reaching Greater Understanding

How Intent and Impact Differ

What we wish to convey by our actions and words and how others interpret them can be very different things. The message sent is not always the message received. 

Intent is the purpose behind an action or statement – the why behind what someone does. Impact is the result. It is how the person on the receiving end of those words or actions interprets or feels about what they just encountered. 

Regardless of a person’s thought process, how someone perceives another’s words or actions is very real for them and cannot be discounted. The recipient may view the interaction as unwelcome behavior or even a microaggression. 

Each of us comes from a different background and life experience. We see the world through a unique lens. These perspectives may lead to misunderstandings that create friction at work and might ultimately cause employees to leave your organization. A thoughtful approach to intent and impact is essential to ongoing employee engagement. 

Examples in the Workplace

Analyzing some hypothetical, work-day interactions may help put the distinction between intent and impact into context.

Scenario 1

Sharissa and her boss, David, attend a meeting with the head of security for all the parks in the county. David is responsible for security at one of the county parks. He is proud of his team and how they enforce policies and procedures, which allow residents to enjoy the park safely. At one point during the conversation, David states, "Sharissa is a pitbull; no one messes with her." Sharissa shifts in her chair at this comment and quietly adds, "We just follow park policy." 

David’s intent is to praise Sharissa and cast her in a positive light in front of the head of security. His aim is not to make Sharissa uncomfortable or imply anything negative, but he clearly has. Sharissa’s physical responses – shifting in her chair and lowering her voice – indicate that she does not view David’s comment as a compliment. 

Scenario 2

Andrew and Diane are members of a creative team that has weekly virtual brainstorming sessions. Andrew is a senior member of the team, and Diane is a new hire. Occasionally, Andrew’s wifi connection lags making it difficult for him to track when others have begun speaking. During Diane’s first meeting, Andrew repeatedly speaks over Diane, and it seems to Diane that he is only speaking over her. No one else at the meeting seems to notice or point out Andrew’s behavior.

Diane eventually stops contributing to the discussion because she feels that Andrew is trying to send her the message that she should be quiet and just listen. She feels discouraged and second-guesses her decision to join the team.

Andrew was not attempting to put Diane “in her place.” His actions were inadvertent and due to technical difficulties. However, because Andrew repeatedly interrupted Diane and no one in the group seemed to notice, Diane interpreted Andrew’s and the group’s behavior as a sign that she is not a valued member of the team. 

Scenario 3

Marcy heads up a group responsible for tracking and reporting on annual grant funding for youth mentoring programs. Their system gets the job done, but she feels it is time to upgrade and streamline the process. The implementation of Marcy’s recommended platform does not go smoothly. Her team must work many late nights and weekends to get the new platform online, yet they still miss a critical deadline.

Marcy intended to lighten her team’s workload and improve their workflow. Unfortunately, her creative plan resulted in a missed deadline, frustrated higher-ups and created resentful and disgruntled employees. 

Reaching Greater Understanding

In each of the above examples, the person engaging in the concerning conduct had “good” intentions but that did not matter. The recipients ended up uncomfortable or offended. When this happens, tensions rise in your workplace environment, and people may be too distracted to perform well.

The best way to avoid such conflict is to prevent it in the first place. Reinforce a culture that values respect for diversity of thought, promotes thoughtful, purposeful communication and encourages employees to be sensitive to how they are perceived. 

Such considerations may come more naturally to some employees than others. Training and coaching sessions can go a long way to heighten awareness and improve skills. If you do not have the expertise or resources to do this, HR consulting firms can offer invaluable assistance. 

Once a situation arises, honest communication is critical to addressing the rift. Here are a few tips to facilitate such discussions:

  • Listen to the other person to learn from their experience. Show empathy.

  • Genuinely apologize. Avoid statements that start with “but” or “if” (e.g., “If I offended you…”).

  • Explain your intent but do not water down the apology. Put your actions into context but do not shift the blame. Take responsibility and acknowledge that your intent did not align with the impact.

The gap between a person’s intent and their impact on those around them can be far-reaching, but raising awareness and enhancing communication skills are some of the best ways to bridge this divide. 

Jill Krumholz is a Managing Partner for RealHR Solutions.