Good Intentions Are Not A Free Pass

If you don’t regularly think about this, you should:

There isn’t a person alive who doesn’t have to deal with this every day but I’m guessing most of us forget.

I started thinking about this more specifically after listening to the last episode of the Happiness lab and the episode on grading. In it, they talk about the way in which tracking and sharing fitness goals, including the use of protein powder, may have a negative effect on both yourself and others. In the sharing economy, sharing our achievements is pretty ubiquitous and as educators, we know and value sharing. I’ve spent a lot of my career advocating for it. But the discussion here suggests when you share your latest run, workout or steps, it may, in fact, impact someone in a negative way. They may feel less about themselves. They may become less motivated. But as the person sharing, that was never your intent. You likely are sharing to either encourage others (“if I can do it, so can you”) or for your own accountability. Yes, there may be some who share as a humble or not so humble brag and maybe it’s a combination of these reasons that you share. But I believe it’s important that when you receive or see something others are sharing that you assume good intentions. Even if the intentions turn out to be somewhat nefarious, I think we should start with assuming good intentions.

At the same time, when we share we also need to do a better job at understanding impact. This is true particularly those who have explicit or implicit power. Whether your title says you’re a leader or you have a large following online, you hold a degree of power over others that may at times prevent or discourage them from pushing back. Many times I’ve observed those in power being questioned about the impact of their statements, tweets or policies and often results in a very defensive response. It usually begins with “that wasn’t my intent” and the conversation and debate go sideways. Again, I think it’s important that those on the receiving end should assume good intentions but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t make the offenders aware of of the impact.

While I could give you a zillion examples from our 35-year marriage let me share one from my time as Tech Director. The district had decided to give laptops to every teacher. This was a long and hard negotiation and decision that I had advocated for a long time. When it was time to dole them out, I got to play the role of Oprah and attend staff meetings to say “You get a laptop and you get a laptop!” Who wouldn’t want that gig? While the vast majority of teachers were excited and grateful not everyone felt that way. I had kind of anticipated some resistance but had not considered every impact it would have. Specifically when an educator said partly under their breath but also loud enough so it was heard said, “Great, now they want us to work 24 hours a day”.

This was both an unexpected response and certainly, was nowhere near our intentions. I remember thinking about how stupid and petty this person was to think that was why we were giving them laptops. After all, I had been preaching the gospel of the power of technology for years and anyone who knew me knew I saw the laptop as a tool of empowerment. It took me quite a while to get off my high horse and accept that no matter my intention at least one and likely other teachers felt we were taking something from them.

The bottom line here is that as leaders and those with power, we need to be highly aware of the impact of our words and decisions and that simply because we meant well, it does not give us a free pass to ignore or dismiss when the impact differs. We can certainly practice giving folks the assumption of good intentions but have to be willing to engage those who see our efforts differently, even if we think they are delusional. I think makes us all better leaders and creates better cultures.