“What one does is what counts. Not what one had the intention of doing.” – Pablo Picoasso
I was having one of those afternoon “summer jam” kind of days; driving down the road with the music blasting and my sunroof open. Admittedly, I wasn’t cool enough for vintage Metallica or Led Zeppelin IV. No, I was a 40+ year old man checking out Ed Sheeran’s album, X. On it, he has a song called “Don’t.” I was really intrigued with the lyrics the very first time I heard it. I think we all have the propensity to enjoy a good break-up song now and then, and for me, this was one of those moments. The lyrics are pretty cutting. The chorus especially got my attention…
A few days later, my wife Kristine was in the car with me. My new favorite song came on. So, I turned it up and subjected her to a few bars of my terrible falsetto as I sang along. The chorus kicked in and I belted out, “I like to lie a lot!” She started to chuckle and asked me, “What did you just sing?” I turned down the radio and simply said the words this time. Kristine quickly corrected me and said, “I don’t think those are the lyrics. I think he’s singing…Ah…lamlahlah.” Of course, I got defensive and asked, “Why would those be the lyrics?! The whole song is about a lying woman so maybe he’s saying he likes to lie a lot because a) he’s either lying about her story or b) she likes to lie a lot and is a dirty cheat!” This debate lasted a few days. Later, we confirmed that Kristine was in fact correct.
It’s funny how one line in a song could change the whole meaning or intent. And for whatever reason, that’s what happened to me with this song. It’s not funny, however, when the same type of thing happens in the workplace, is it?
Sometimes we are certain someone said something or had some specific intent – and it causes us to spiral for a few hours or even days.
Have you experienced something similar? Have you ever been in a meeting where you are sure your archrival took a jab after you gave a team or project update? Or what about an email from an internal stakeholder who made some comment that sounds like an attack on your follow-through skills and work quality? How about a “fly-by” critique provided by a boss as (s)he was running to another meeting? How many times have misunderstood communications disrupted your good chi?
As a human being, I’ve misinterpreted people’s words, too…and often. As a leader, I’ve mediated such disputes. And as a consultant, I’m already coaching clients through similar situations. It’s amazing how much time and energy is wasted on common misunderstandings.
Here’s the thing: measuring intent is impossible. And at the same time, when someone says something, it takes great discipline to accept it for what it is. Unfortunately, tone and word choice can cast an ugly cloud, which prevents us from seeing the full picture. Psychologists have proven that judging intentions is fruitless given the fact that most people don’t even understand their own motivations. However, there is a lot of scientific research which reminds us past behavior is the single best predictor of future behavior.
Said another way, judging actions is more effective than judging intentions.
But before you start tallying up how many times your archrival has “slashed your tires in the parking lot,” let me share a powerful tip. I once had a boss who used to say,
“Objectivity is lethal.”
For me, this was such great advice. In my professional life, the more I can be objective about a situation or keep a situation focused on objective criteria, the easier it is to build trust and followership. I won’t lie – it’s sometimes difficult and requires effort. I find though that by repeating that line (“objectivity is lethal”) in my head when I’m starting to judge intent and tone, it helps tremendously.
Now that I’m finished with this blog, it’s time to jump back into summer jams. I still think, “I like to lie a lot,” is a better chorus. Next song to figure out: “Blinded by the Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. “Wrapped up like a…” What are they saying?!?
Chris Laping is Co-Founder & CEO of People Before Things, LLC, a boutique consultancy that helps executive and project leaders prepare people for technology change. He has also written a best-selling book, People Before Things: Change Isn’t an End-User Problem, which explores the role leaders play to pave success in change and transformation. To join the conversation, follow @CIOChris and @pplb4things on Twitter.