Actions to take: Retrain your brain not to look for “why” in people’s actions. Actively stop yourself from spending mental energy on people’s motives. Focus instead on behaviors that need to change. When employees try to make it about “why” during feedback conversations, redirect.
With everyone, but especially your employees, assume positive intent. You should assume that a person meant well with whatever they were doing. They do not mean harm, they are not intentionally avoiding work, or making mistakes, or being lazy, or being less effective. They are intending to do good.
I believe there are lazy people. I have had lazy employees. But did they think they of themselves as lazy? Of course not. They were “working at a good pace” or “paying attention to detail” or “making sure to get it right.” I even believe that people sometimes have bad intent, that they are doing something malicious. Occasionally, you will get an employee who is working slowly on purpose. It happens. Far less frequently than we managers imagine, but it does happen.
As hard as it is to accept, intent does not matter. It is irrelevant whether an employee is working slowly on purpose or not. I know that statement will ruffle some feathers. I didn’t like it the first time I heard it. We are wired to seek justice in the world, and that part of our brain hates the idea of ignoring someone’s intent. Motive is built into our laws—it informs how severe the punishment will be. How dare I propose that you ignore it when trying to address employee issues?
I am telling you it doesn’t matter because focusing on intent just isn’t an effective way to manage people. When I say “focus on intent,” I am primarily referring to two behaviors that we tend to engage in: dwelling on your employee's motives and engaging in conversation about why your employee did what they did. We spend a lot of time and energy on these two activities. They don’t get the job done the way you think they would. There are a couple of reasons.
First, the vast majority of the time, people are acting with good (or at the very least, benign) intent. Think about it: when is the last time you acted with malicious intent at work? Have you ever acted with malicious intent at work? I am guessing never, or very, very rarely in extreme circumstances. The same is true for your peers, superiors, and yes, your employees. Do not make the mistake of thinking you are morally superior to them.
Second, no matter how much evidence you have, you can’t prove what is going on in someone else’s head. Let’s say you have someone who is actively trying to thwart the organization, truly acting with malicious intent. There are low odds you will ever actually run into this scenario. Still, let’s say it has happened, and it is obvious. What can you do with that information? Anyone who is willing to act against the organization is willing to lie about it. If you confront them, they will simply say you are wrong. One can even imagine them gaining the moral high ground in their denial: “I can’t believe you’d say that. I love this organization!” You have no leg to stand on. Any focus on why a person acted the way they did is an invitation to a long argument that you can’t win. It is a distraction from the real topic, which is to improve for the future.
Third, we don’t manage thoughts. As the previous example just demonstrated, you will lose any argument about what is going on in someone else’s head—which is where motive lies. Also, it is foolish and frankly a little infantilizing to try to manage your employee’s thoughts (after all, is your boss any good at managing yours?). They are adults. They do not need you playing psychologist or helping them work out their issues to be a better human. What they need, what we all need out of our managers, is information on how to do the job more successfully. To accomplish that, we manage behaviors. Tell them what you need them to do and let them worry for themselves about how to be.
Intent is irrelevant when it comes to changing a behavior, and that is a blessing. Forget about “why.” You don’t have to think about why someone did what they did. You don’t have to approach a problem in 10 different ways depending on a person’s motivation. You are free to have a much, much simpler conversation: this behavior is an issue; please work on improving it. If they do it again, you offer feedback again—on the behavior, not their motivations. An employee might plunge into all the reasons why they didn’t do the thing you needed them to do. That is fine. Be polite about it, but don’t engage in it. Say something vaguely agreeable and then restate your need for them to change the behavior. (Future posts will delve into exactly how to conduct these feedback conversations)
As a special bonus, this will completely rattle employees who are indeed acting with ill intent. Their whole lives, they have successfully dodged responsibility by engaging in rhetoric and coming up with excuses. By assuming positive intent, you side-step their entire strategy. I say this cheerfully, positively, genuinely: “I do not care why it happened in the past. I am asking you to fix it for the future.”
Stop asking why people are doing the things that they are doing. Assume that they meant well, regardless of the outcome. Say to yourself, “They did their best. It didn’t turn out as well as it could have,” and move on to fixing it for next time. I promise, your employees want to do well. Stamp out any thoughts that suggest otherwise.