How To Align Intentions and Actions

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We all sometimes show up in the world in a way we didn’t intend. Sometimes it’s a moment we learn from and move on, but at other times we get stuck showing up repeatedly in ways that go against who we really want to be. To fix that, we need both clearer intentions, and also a sharper awareness of how we come across to others.

Take a leader I worked with whom I’ll call Alex. He knew he wanted to be a strong, empathetic leader. He is very talented, and had risen quickly in his field. Yet he was unhappy and uninspired when I met him, while working at a job he should have loved. He was stressed by his boss, John, who was unsupportive and demanding, and Alex was handling the problem with passive-aggressive behavior. Alex’s team, who otherwise loved him, was dissatisfied because instead of setting boundaries, he was allowing John to pile them all with unreasonable amounts of work. 

Another leader, Ellen, is a scientist who loves facts, one lens through which she views the world. When I met her I slowly uncovered that she was a good person who cared about people around her, but that wasn’t how she showed up to others at work. She was so narrowly focused on getting facts and results that she did not have insight into how she came across to others. Many people who worked with her found her cold and unfeeling. She did not intend how she showed up. 

Alex was avoiding doing what he knew he needed to do, because he didn’t recognize how damaging it was that his actions were contradicting his intentions. Ellen was unaware of her impact, because she assumed her intentions would be obvious. 

These are only a couple of the reasons that our intentions may not show up in our actions, but whatever the reason, there are a few key steps to getting better at aligning what we intend with how we act. Though one person may need to work more on one part of the process more than another, the following three steps seem to be critical:

  1. Get clear to yourself about your intentions and how you want to show up. This might be fairly obvious to you already, but go ahead and fill in the picture as much as possible. Who are your heroes? How would they show up? What won’t you compromise about? What would you hope people say about you when you’re not in the room? The clearer the picture you have of your intentions, the more useful those intentions will be as motivators and guides toward the right action in any situation. 
  2. Gather insight into how you are coming across to others. In coaching work we gather this information for clients, often collecting anonymous feedback. People are often surprised about the divide between how they hope they come across, and how they actually do. To learn more about how you show up to others, try asking around, and offering some options from a spectrum: Do I seem more of a cool person or a warm person? Do I seem like more of an introvert or extrovert? More pushy or self-effacing?
  3. Develop an ability to accept yourself and the process. Dr. Susan David, author of the book Emotional Agility, and psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, says “emotional agility” is the ability to be with yourself, your thoughts, your emotions, and your stories about yourself and what you are and aren’t good at, and so forth “in a way that is curious and compassionate…in a way that allows you to surface your values, your ‘why,’ and in which you are able to use that information to make choices and bring to the fore behaviors that are congruent, that are important, that close the gap between your intentions and your reality.”

I believe that the more we can close that gap between intentions and reality, between our inner aspirations and the outer world, the more motivated, inspired, and satisfied we will be. 

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