The Thinning Line Between Intent and Impact

A golden nugget in emotional intelligence (EQ) training used to be that people with a truly high EQ have a distinct ability to distinguish impact from intent. After all, if we are to judge and respond to everyone based on how they impact us, understanding, perspective, and forgiveness would eventually fall by the waist side. As the saying goes that was then and…

“We don’t even seek to understand anymore. Every time someone makes a mistake, we assume the worst in them, and they become persona non grata!”

“Their apology was sincere. Besides, they didn’t mean to do it. Quit holding it over their head.”

“Are we really at a point in our society where people are expected to be clued in to anything and everything that could offend someone else?”

“Someone says something that offends someone else and just like that their career is gone, and they are now a pariah.”

These are direct quotes from the most recent spate of culture sessions I facilitated. They also encapsulate the thoughts and feelings of a large number of people who have grown tired of the “social police state” that has “created snowflakes” and “eviscerated forgiveness.”

But wait, there is another point of view and it goes something like this: Intent can no longer be an excuse for poor behaviors and actions; particularly when they negatively impact entire groups of people. Is there a middle to these two sides or is one completely right and the other completely wrong? To some degree, this is a question that only society can answer. No culture expert, psychology professor, or luminary in the field of humanities can outweigh the will of the human people. Today, that will has created movements and counter movements that are challenging tolerance levels and pushing back on perceived over correcting. Henceforth, we have the tale of two citizens.

  1. We tire of your apologies for doing or saying things that any reasonable, empathetic, and aware person should know not to do. If you do not exude these characteristics, sit down, learn something, change your habits, and join us. Otherwise, get out of our way.

This is life in the big social city and times are hard. What’s more, this is not a simple case of black and white, right or wrong. There are nuances to the idea of separating impact from intent. As well, people behind the movements and counter movements are both victims and perpetrators. However, unless they are willing to open their eyes and their minds, the division that is multiplying in our country will continue to add up to more movements. Eventually, everyone has figuratively moved so far away from everyone else that there will be nothing united about our country.

Truth: The nuances of humans and social interaction are the real litmus tests for when intent should and should not matter.

Truth: BOTH SIDES must be willing to move beyond their anger and bias to even explore the nuances and react accordingly.

Truth: There are five thematic nuances that, more often than not, are in the mix.

Let’s explore…

What are those social sins that create an instant and understandably horrid reaction when committed by someone? One would be the use of the “N” word by someone other than a black or African American person. This slur has been directed towards an entire race of people who, for over two hundreds years, were either enslaved or the victims of legal discrimination. What’s more, the offensiveness of the term has been widely discussed and plastered into our conscious. In this, when the term is used by someone other than a black or African American, impact will undoubtedly overrule intent. What we are talking about here are awareness and reasonable expectation. In another example, I once dealt with a situation wherein a male supervisor sat two female subordinates down and used the terms “babe” and “cute” to describe them throughout an awkward discussion. As far as impact goes, the females were offended and horrified. He insisted that he intended no harm and had no idea these terms would garner such a negative reaction. Is it reasonable to expect that a senior leader in todays workplace would have a higher level of awareness when it comes to the use of these terms? The verdict at all levels of the complaint review process was a resounding yes!

In 2018, Viggo Mortensen was taken to task for using the “N” word at a press junket for “Green Book.” His apology was swift and, to the majority, was seen as sincere. More importantly, his past behaviors and actions put him squarely in the seat of a social advocate, who long fought for the rights of women and minorities, among other social change efforts. As a result of these factors, he was largely forgiven. Just three months prior, John Schnatter, former CEO of Papa Johns, was ousted from his position for using the very same word. This led to some people crying foul for the differences in treatment and outcome between two white men who committed the same social sin. The rationale came down to response and consistency of character. For starters, Mr. Schnatter’s apology for using the “N” word was seen as defensive, largely because he spent more time talking about why he used the word and less time listening to understand the source of peoples angst. As well, he previously commented that NFL players kneeling for the National Anthem were to blame for low pizza sales. Simply put, Viggo’s overall character prior to the incident and his response afterwards enabled people to view his social sin differently and thus respond to it differently.

In some cases, it really just comes down to personal association. Someone does or says something that offends us at such a personal level that we don’t seek to understand where they were coming from. I remember working for an organization that was going to host an event called “Stand Up Day,” which was intended to inspire the workforce to stand up to bullying. Before the event started, one of our employees with a disability took deep offense to the term ‘stand up’ since he was not physically able to. His desire was to have the “…Day” removed from the planning schedule and to require the planners to go through sensitivity training or be fired. Was he right or was it an overreaction as some opined? To be clear, his feelings matter and must be taken seriously. As well, the intent of the workforce mattered, particularly since the phrase, while offensive to him, would not have fit into the list of actions and words that people would have reasonably been expected to understand as offensive. All of this said, there was no presumption of good intent on either side and thus no dialogue. This is similar to a reckoning that is occurring in workforces across the country over the use of phrases that have been common for so long and are being exposed as offensive. Terms or actions such as the six below have existed in our social fabric for so long and have simultaneously offended people who are just now feeling comfortable enough to come forward and express their displeasure.

  1. “Off the reservation”

In a healthy world, the offended would come forward with presumption of positive intent while the offender would listen to understand what is behind the anger, sadness, or annoyance that such terms or actions have influenced. More importantly, they would seek to understand with the goal of moving forward. In a healthy world…

Awareness, reasonable expectation, response, consistency of character, and personal associated represent the five nuances that come into play when balancing impact and intent. Like humans, they are complicated. We must be prepared to understand and deal with them head on if we are to reverse course and improve our social culture.

Certified Master Facilitator / Certified Diversity Executive / Award-winning leader in empowerment and equality.

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