The Unintentional Leader

I was recently meeting with a group of client team members, and upon entering the room one of the team members commented that I was not sitting at the end of the table, where most people sit when they’re leading a meeting. I told him that my choice of seat location was intentional, and he said, “I’m guessing that everything you do is intentional.” Well, maybe not everything but certainly most things – at least important things, and most things are important (even little things). Some intentional things are practical, such as sitting to someone’s left so that my good ear (the right) is facing them. Other intentional things are based upon communication and leadership commitments, such as asking people if they’re open to feedback or a question, no matter what the setting or context (e.g. clients, team members, friends, etc.). That’s the thing about leadership – it is intentional.

However, many of you are not intentional and fail to pay attention to the unintentional, especially when it comes to communication. Specifically, I want to talk about the nature of the intentional (intended) and unintentional (unintended) in your communication (e.g. words, tone, body language, context, expressions, etc.).

Whenever there has been a communication miss, whether personally or professionally, I always ask the communicator and the person being communicated with these questions:

  • What was the intended message?
  • What was the intended impact?
  • What was the unintended message?
  • What was the unintended impact?

For clarity, the “message” is what you intend someone to experience or what the person actually experiences from the overall communication experience. The “message” is not the actual words, but the underlying message that you intend to communicate or that is actually heard (usually about the person, more than the situation as you’ll see in the examples below).

Before we talk about better utilizing these questions in our communication intent and outcomes, let me give you two examples of how these can get off course (one from the perspective of the communicator and one from the perspective of the receiver).

A team member made a mistake on a project, and his manager called to inform him of the mistake. However, the manager’s tone was agitated and angry. When I asked the team member about the communication experience (using the four questions but starting with the unintended), here’s what he said:

  • What was the unintended message? This was a stupid mistake and I’m an idiot.
  • What was the unintended impact? I feel attacked, I’m afraid to make a mistake and I don’t respect my manager.

I then asked the team member if he thought this message and impact was the communicator’s intent, and he said “no.” I then shifted gears and invited the team member to speculate on the manager’s intentions:

  • What do you think the intended message was? I know you can do better than this and I want you to be the best you can be.
  • What do you think the intended impact was? To help me improve, to be more careful and make fewer mistakes in the future.

Make no mistake – I’m not suggesting that the intended messages condone or justify the poor communication by the manager, but the receiver’s consideration of the most likely intended message and impact will often help them to let go of some of the prior experience and be open to an improved relationship with the communicator.

I suspect the problem in this case was twofold – the communicator was not purposeful about their intended message and impact AND the communicator failed to be aware and thoughtful about how their overall communication might naturally create an unintended message and impact. In the worst cases, the communicator doesn’t even care about unintended messages and impacts, and that is NOT leadership.

Now let’s look at an example from the perspective of the communicator. A client shared with me that he had recently communicated with a team member about a need to do something a certain way, but he felt like the communication had not gone well, sensing that the team member did not receive the direction. When I asked him to explain the communication, he shared the following:

I told the team member to “Never use this form again.” The team member then offered an explanation of why they had used the form, and I responded with the identical words: “Never use this form again.” I thought I was being clear, but I don’t think it was perceived that way.

I then asked the manager the intention questions, and his answers are below:

  • What was your intended message? I didn’t really think about the message before communicating.
  • What was your intended impact? I never thought about it. I just communicated. I guess I wanted to make it clear what I wanted in the future – for them to not do this again.

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual response when I ask leaders and managers about their intentions. They either don’t consider the intent at all or they only consider their intended impact, but rarely the intended message (what they want the receiver to hear) or the unintended message and impact.

We then explored the unintended message and impact:

  • What might be the unintended message perceived by the other person when you repeat your instruction verbatim after their question or explanation? That I don’t care what they think, that I’m not open to their questions or even that they’re somehow simple-minded because I spoke to them in a child-like manner.
  • What might be the unintended impact of your overall communication? That they will only do specifically what I say, that they won’t ask questions or that they will be hesitant to engage and communicate with me.

Great awareness! We can’t always know or guess how our communication will be perceived, but leadership and effective management requires us to be more intentional and thoughtful not only about the wording of our communication, but the entire communication experience.

When you are communicating with someone, be thoughtful and pause to consider these leadership power questions:

  • What is my intended message (to and about the person)?
  • What is my intended impact (what do I want to happen or change)?
  • What might be the unintended messages or impacts based upon everything about my communication, and in what ways can I modify the communication experience to minimize any unintended messages or impacts?

Thoughtfulness and intentionality are core elements of leaders and effective managers, and I invite you to commit to being more intentional in every area of your life, especially when it comes to communication and relationships. An unintentional leader is not only an ineffective leader, but is not a leader at all.

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