Intention Versus Impact

Intention Versus Impact

It’s incredibly common for me to see people making excuses for another person’s (or their own!) harmful words or behavior on the basis of their ‘intention’.

While I do think there’s a distinction between deliberately malicious versus neutral or even good intentions, when we stop our evaluation at the point of intention, it completely ignores accountability for the impact someone’s words or behavior is having.

If someone has several drinks, then drives home and runs over your dog, the end result for you is that your dog is dead, whether or not the intoxicated person intended to cause harm.

We have a punitive culture that likes to see wrongdoers blamed, judged and suffering for their misdeeds, so it’s no wonder when we see (or project!) innocence of intention, our instinct is to protect the wrongdoer from accountability for their words and actions.

But in taking this approach, we focus all our protection on the source of harm, and offer no protection to the person being harmed. The same person who has been injured is now also responsible for managing their reaction to the wrongdoer, and is asked to have more sympathy for the one causing harm than sympathy for themselves.

Meanwhile, the one causing harm has not been made to understand how their words and actions are inappropriate, and absent any learning they will more than likely continue their hurtful behavior.

In addition to our punitive culture, what makes it possible for such an obviously unfair outcome to be commonplace?

It has been my observation that when this ‘intention’ pattern plays out, there is almost always a power differential at play, with the harm flowing from white people to people of color, from men to women, from supervisors to employees, from adults to children, from self-proclaimed authorities to people seeking support.

It’s a curious economy that imagines concern should trickle down from the top of the power pyramid, and yet allows responsibility to rise up from the bottom. Shouldn’t the reverse be true?

How can you mitigate the injustices of ‘intention culture’ in the workplace? One suggestion is to codify a team code of conduct which describes common scenarios, narrates the harmful outcomes, and provides a structured process for the wrongdoer to make reparation which includes acknowledgement of harm, apology, restitution (if relevant), and consequences if the wrongdoer refuses to participate in the reparation process and/or continues to cause harm.

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