We (should not) judge ourselves by our intentions

I recently posted some “agile tips from my Grandmother,” or some old saying that still apply in agile teams today.

I want talking to someone this week and I shared another old saying:

We judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.

On old quote

I think the saying is true, we do tend to observe the actions of others and then “reverse engineer” what we imagine their intentions to be. For example, they run late for a meeting so we assume they did not care about being on time, even though we have no idea what happened to them on the way to the meeting.

What about the second part of the saying though? I often forgive my own mistakes because I know I meant well. This might be a source of latent conflict though, if

  • I am assessing and explaining my intentions; while
  • Others are observing my actions and then inferring (alleged) intentions based on them.

According to Steven Covey, in his book “The Speed of Trust,” This simple disconnect has major ramifications and can be addressed fairly simply.

One tip is to state our own intentions before we act, which both let’s others know our thinking AND keeps us honest when we try to be consistent with what we say.

Interestingly, there are two more tips though:

  • Assume others are likely to misunderstand our intentions – so make them clear both upfront and as we go along. Then live up to them, by acting in a way that is in coherence with what we want.
  • Assume others have good intentions unless there is good reason to believe otherwise.

I think this is good advice, which can be put into practice by being curious and being open with others, both of which build trust over time.

There is a related phenomenon in the that Dominica DeGrandis mentions in her book “Making Work Visible“, apparently caused by us being human:

  • We tend to want to make connections with others, so we want to be nice to them. As a result we often say yes to requests without thinking about whether we really have time for them, or how much effort we will have to expend;
  • At the same time we usually underestimate the impact of our requests on others because we do not see all the other things they are doing.

Based on this, it is almost inevitable that we will take on more work that we can deliver AND inflict lots of unimportant work on others, who will say yes to doing it and then suffer as a result.

Our intention is NOT to take on too much work, nor to inflict suffering on others. It just turns out that way.

So the secret in her book is not to just mean well, but to MAKE OUR WORK VISIBLE to each other. If we make our work visible to each other, then we will overcome this phenomenon and collaborate better.

So both authors seem to suggest that good intentions alone are not enough. It is far better if we:

  • Openly share (or make visible) our intentions;
  • Make the work we are doing visible in some simple way;
  • Do not assume that others trust us because we are doing the right thing (or mean to do); and
  • Remain curious about what others intend and are up to, assuming that they mean well but that we do not really understand what is going on unless it becomes visible to us.

This is not about blind trust though. We should not just be curious but also open in our intention to validate our assumptions (and trust) not because we fail to trust the person but because we think there is so much risk of miscommunication and mistaken assumptions/expectations.

So I guess I will continue to have good intentions and judge myself on them, but also try to remember that visibility is at least as important as intention. Maybe I should even judge myself on how well I make things visible to others and how well I stay curious without judgement when working with others.

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