Worthless Intent

danbo appears to be moderating an argument between two lego characters
Credit: Flickr / Adriane Dizon

One of the things that I write about in my lessons learned from 6 months of managing blogpost was about my realisation that intentions do actually matter.

“I’ve long found discussion of “intentions” completely worthless. I just don’t want to hear about it. Especially in the context that it invariably is – men who tell me about their intentions after screwing things up. I still don’t think there is much value in discussing intentions. But intentions are actually the place where your actions come from, and that is important. It’s not what you do, but how you do it. And regardless of what is said about intentions, people always know what your intentions really are. For example feedback can be given from a place of “this will make my life easier” or from a place of “this is how I believe you can be more effective” – which one do you think is better taken?”

But I still find discussion of intentions worthless. And the reason why has everything to do with conflict resolution.

This was a big gap for me – I had seen very little constructive conflict resolution in a professional context. At the conglomerate it often felt like there was the assumption that if everyone was smart and well intentioned their would be no conflict, so when conflict arose it felt like you were expected to just be smarter and have better intentions. And then of course the “best” intentions win out, where “best” is often what best re-enforces this collective self image of smart, well intentioned people.

The thing is, the intellect and intentions of people around you have nothing to do with whether or not there will be conflict. Conflict arises when people disagree. So when people think and want different things, there’s conflict. When not everyone can have an outcome that works for them, that conflict can be particularly vicious. Regardless of how smart they are. Regardless of their intentions.

The thing about intentions is that they are the start of conflict resolution, but we often talk like they are the end of conflict resolution. This is completely wrong. Believing that someone means well might get you to the table to talk to them, but it does not get you to agree with them.

We see some very circular arguments on the internet sometimes, and often one person is talking about intent and the other is talking about action and outcomes. The person talking about intent often responds very badly to this, but the thing is their intent is either irrelevant or accepted – and that is why they are getting a response at all.

I still don’t know much about conflict resolution, but one thing I’ve realised is that you have to get people to start talking about the same thing. The intentions of two (or more!) different people are never going to be the same thing.

In the talk I gave (twice now) about burnout one story I tell is about an awful manager who – amongst other things – told me that he thought by never giving me positive feedback he was training me not to need any. I quip “this did not work, by the way” and a room full of people laugh because it’s so obviously stupid, so obviously wouldn’t work.

But here’s the thing: he told me that with this ernest expression on his face. He truly believed it. He truly thought that he was helping me be a better developer, a better human being.

But his intentions are worthless next to the harm that management technique (and non-techniques) and countless others did not just to my emotional well being, and my career, and (I think to a lesser extent) the careers of other women (and men) who reported to him. That manager did more than anyone else to drive me to want to leave tech.

So do I care about his intentions? For a while maybe, they got me to keep showing up to work, to 1:1s and trying to deal with him. But that only went so far. There came a point when – No. Having some distance – No. His actions outweighed his intentions by a factor of 100:1. His intentions don’t make me feel like I should forgive him; I don’t think we are obliged to forgive everyone who harms us. Accept, because accepting the past is how we move on. But forgive – No.

We state our intentions – I have done, do this too – because we want to be seen as “good”. Because it matters to us that people know that whatever disconnect arose was not deliberate, on our part. Okay. But if you want to resolve a conflict – or right a wrong – you can’t end there. You haven’t even started. It’s just the beginning.

One thought on “Worthless Intent

  1. But if you want to resolve a conflict – or right a wrong – you can’t end there. You haven’t even started. It’s just the beginning.

    I love that! I think a big part of my lack of interest in people’s intentions is how often people act like “But I meant well!” somehow magically makes everything okay. Nope, you’ve got to actually, you know, *fix* things to make them okay.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

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