Why good intent is not enough


“Having spent many years trying to define the essentials of trust, I arrived at the position that if two people could say two things to each other and mean them, then there was the basis for real trust. The two things were “I mean you no harm” and “I seek your greatest good.”  –Jim Meehan, British Psychologist

A few years ago, I was coaching a client I’ll call Sam.  Sam would regularly find himself embroiled in conflict with others in the workplace. He talked a good game, but Sam often had difficulty delivering on his promises. Over time, Sam’s colleagues trusted him less and less as his inspiring and visionary ideas hung in the air and weren’t translated into action.

I remember Sam saying, “My intent is pure, can’t they see that?” To which I responded, “Well, actually no. They can’t see that.”  I went on to explain that while we tend to judge ourselves by our intent, we tend to judge others by their behavior. Others were judging Sam on his ability to follow through on commitments AND attributing bad intent to his behavior. So relying on one of my favorite Covey principles, “you can’t talk your way out of a problem you behaved your way into,” we explored ways that Sam could behave his way out of his current problem.

While not all of us struggle with the same dilemma as Sam, it’s important for leaders to remember that people are constantly observing our behaviors AND are making assumptions about our intent. People often distrust us because of the conclusions they draw about what we do. Our perception of intent has a huge impact on trust. When thinking about the importance of intent and trust, here are some questions taken from Steven M.R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust, that I’ve found helpful to consider:

  • How often do I discount (or “tax”) what someone says because I am suspicious about that person’s intent?
  • What kind of tax is my organization paying because employees don’t trust management’s intent? What is the impact on speed and cost?
  • What kind of tax are we paying as a team because we are suspicious of one another’s motives?
  • What kind of tax am I paying because people question my own intent?
  • What can I do to improve and better communicate my intent?

Building off Jim Meehan’s insight into the essentials of building trust, how can I demonstrate “I mean you no harm” and “I seek your greatest good?”  In other words, how can I behave in a way that is consistent with the intent of genuine care for others?

Anita Rios


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.