It's a simple matter of intention vs action. I did not floss this morning. I did not workout at all this week.
These are things that are important to me. I’ve made promises to myself. I really want to do these things. I psych myself up, set myself up, and have all the time and equipment and resources needed to do exactly what I am not doing.
Those examples are all about me and are, therefore, easy to pass over. Where this gets a little more uncomfortable for me is when I think about the same types of scenarios that involve other people. I must admit that I am not very good at sending thank you cards and birthday cards in a timely manner.
I want to. I mean to. I just don’t always do it… My intentions are good. My actions are not.
Improve Management Skills by Clarifying Intention vs Action
What’s the difference? It’s a big one, but people often blur the lines. I think it is a matter of ego being in the way when I think that my intentions are adequate.
Intention: A wish or idea that someone means to carry out.
Action: Something that is done, completed or performed.
There is a wide gap between thinking the thing and doing the thing. The bridge that enables us to cross that divide is commitment.
We make surface-level commitments all the time, and I believe these are usually accompanied by good intentions. You ask someone to do a seemingly simple favor for you – take out the trash, write a letter of recommendation, send a recipe – and they agree. But then you find yourself taking out the garbage or feeling awkward about the recommendation that never gets written… It happens because the commitment level was not sufficient to warrant follow through. It is the typical outcome of intention vs action.
Oh, sure, sometimes people “just forget.” And sometimes people get “really busy.” But we don’t forget the things that are important to us. And we always find time for the things that matter most to us. So these justifications still fall short of being committed to the action. These excuses derail our actions and pile up as intentions that fall short of being anything more. If you want to improve management skills, you need to translate intentions into actions.
DWYSYWD & Follow Through to Increase Leadership Credibility
The inherent risk of good intentions is that they cause you to voice commitments. Your intentions cause you to set expectations for yourself and/or for others. When expectations are in place, people expect you to follow through with actions. If you do not, you lose credibility. You erode others' confidence and trust in you.
The more often your intentions are expressed as commitments that fail to materialize as actions, the more damage you do to your relationships. The lack of follow through puts up barriers that cause people to pull back and disconnect from you. That's why doing what you say you will do is especially critical for leaders.
All the while, this is happening around us in epidemic proportions. We see others doing this and feel that gives a tacit approval to everyone doing the same. I hear people say things like this “Well, anyone who really knows me would understand…” and “I may let a lot of things fall through the cracks, but deep down I really do care.” Those statements sound good, and we may buy into them temporarily. But if you say things like that and allow yourself to believe them, you are fooling yourself. You will only get so much grace from other people before they give up on you. If you really are what you profess to be, you have to show it in your actions.
The bottom line is this – we are judged by our actions and not our intentions. What you planned to do is irrelevant. What you actually did, or did not do, is all that matters to the other person. No one will ever be helped by your good intentions alone. No change occurs when your intentions evaporate into thin air, when they are not backed up by solid action. Even the very best of intentions, minus actions, do no good at all. Credibility is eroded if you give yourself too much credit for intention vs action.
There is however, an appropriate time not to act on your intentions. When you are determining your course of action, check your intentions. Are your actions founded in good intentions that help you and help others around you? If your intentions are borne out of ill will, revenge, anger or malice… then think before you act. Those actions may feel good in the moment, but they will almost certainly backfire and cause you more harm than good.
To be effective, to lead, to connect with others set yourself up with good intentions. Let those intentions be your guide. And act on those good intentions by following through on your commitments. Don’t make excuses for yourself because your credibility and relationships depend on how you act.
This matters, even in the smallest of things.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published July 2016 and has been recently updated.