Why developing leadership requires a focus on intention, not just behaviour

People are not their behaviours but we treat them as such. When a driver "cuts us off", we label them stupid, irresponsible, or a bad driver. Yet, that one behaviour or situational response doesn't define their entire character. It's not necessarily an enduring personality trait; it's just something they did.

Our human tendency to judge someone's character based on the situation or exhibited behaviour is the result of a cognitive bias called the Fundamental Attribution Error. We are quick to judge others from their outside behaviours yet, when it comes to developing new skills, focusing on behaviours does not motivate people to change those behaviours, especially if they are not helpful ones. Working from their intention will produce better and more sustainable results.

Think about the last time you cut off a driver. Perhaps you didn't mean it? Youroutward behaviour was not your inside intention. When they react by beeping their horn at you, it is unlikely to have a positive effect on your behaviour. Now, rather than apologising, the other driver is treated to a return honk of the horn—hardly a productive exchange.

Moving beyond behaviours

It takes a lot to look beneath the behaviour and focus on the intention. Lets face it, it's much easier to respond to what's in front of us and assume people's behaviours define their character. It's easier and less complicated. It's also less effective in creating change and overcoming leadership derailers.

To overcome leadership derailers, it's critical to focus on the inside intention driving the outward behaviour. Here's why:

  • People who feel seen and heard are more willing to make an effort.
  • People are less defensive when you validate their good intentions rather than focus on their negative behaviours.
  • People respond better to 'redirecting their behaviours to better support their intentions' than to 'changing their personalities'.
  • People are more engaged when they know they are on the right track, which leads to greater openness, creativity and insight.
  • People are open to change when the conversation acknowledges their effort.
  • People see themselves from the inside and sometimes can't relate to perceptions from the outside.

Leaders need to polish the edges to get to the next level of leadership. Focusing on intention, not behaviour, is the cornerstone of developing leadership, on the job—where real growth occurs. 

This is an extract from “Why overcoming the 12 leadership derailers require a focus on intention not behaviour”. First published in Modern Business Magazine, February 2016.


 Want more? Check out my new book Developing Direct Reports: Taking the guesswork out of leading leaders out now.

Written for leaders who lead leaders, this book is a practical guide for addressing the 12 most common globally recognised leadership derailers. It’s a resource for developing leadership,on the job.