This is the third article in a series of teamwork tips & tricks. The first tip was about aligning the things you do with the things you want. In the second article I discussed work-life balance. This article is about looking beyond other people’s actions and working with their intent.

I once worked in a team where one of the team members would regularly skip team meetings. And if she attended, she’d only be there for half the time. It felt like she was unmotivated to contribute. At times it even felt like sabotage. The strange thing was that I knew that person as a hard-working and honest. So I decided to investigate and have a chat. It turned out her honest intention was to save the company money by focussing on work she felt was more valuable. Her actions seemed like sabotage on the surface but her intention was to be more productive.

Investigating the intent

What helped in this situation is carefully making the distinction between actions and intentions. Aligning your actions with the things you want to achieve is hard. And it gets worse: misreading other people’s intentions might upset you and lead to conflict.

For instance, imagine someone makes a sneer at you. You can let it hurt you. And then you can hit back with something even nastier. You could also investigate the intent. Try to investigate it calmly. Usually there’s an unmet need behind a sneer. The sneering person has probably failed to ask nicely. Try asking ‘What is it you need?’ or ‘What did you want to tell with that remark?’ Pro tip: avoid asking ‘Why?’ — this can be perceived as judging and escalate a conflict.

In the book ‘Effect’, the authors call this the law of heterogeneous substances. Action and intention seems one and the same – in other words: homogenous – but really aren’t. Upon closer investigation however, they are heterogenous. They are made up of different things.

Escaping the road to hell

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I once – naively – believed that if only I was honest and intended well, people would appreciate everything I did. I learned through frustration, conflict and disappointment that this was not the case.

Three strategies will help you get off that road to hell.

  1. Empathize: before you act, try to imagine what impact your action will have on the other.
  2. Communicate: Explain why you are doing things while you are doing them.
  3. Be patient: You can generally assume other people will make no distinction between your actions and intentions. They could react in unexpected ways.

Reputation en relationship

When other people guess at the intentions behind your actions, your reputation is a big factor. And your actions and words make up your reputation. Seeing intent and communicating your intent will improve your reputation. This will in turn ensure that people guess wrong less often.

The same goes more or less for relationships: great relationships are built on shared values and intentions. Building solid relationships will give you the benefit of the doubt when people guess at your intentions.

Conclusion: great teamwork does not come from good intentions alone

You will be a better team player if you see the distinction between actions and intentions. This goes both for your actions and the actions of others. And there’s more good news: great relationships and a good reputation will cut you some slack. Now go be a nice team player and share this article!

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