The Human Resource: Intent versus impact

There is an adage: “Say what you mean, don’t mean what you say.” Like the challenge of communication in our personal lives, workplace interaction between supervisor and manager, or peer to peer, requires practice and reflection to ensure that your message is received and understood.

Even more complicated than effective messaging is the clarity in a message’s intent for the audience or recipient of the message. In my experience, a significant amount of employee relations or workplace communication issues are rooted in an unintentional misunderstanding of the intent of the message resulting in negative impact for the recipient.

For example, your supervisor storms into your office abruptly, and directs you to stop what you are doing and immediately get outside of the building. You may feel attacked, become defensive, and view the communication from the supervisor as inappropriate and offensive. Therefore, the impact of the communication from the supervisor did not produce the intended reaction or response, blurring the true meaning and purpose of the message, and at times eliminating the reception of the message at all.

The supervisor in this situation may feel negatively when the employee refuses to follow the directions, expresses anger or resentment, and becomes uncooperative to the instructions. The supervisor may experience a failure in their communication and feel unable to express their intent of the message compared to the impact felt by the employee. These emotions and reactions happen almost instantly and more times than not subconsciously.

If I provided this situation context, and told you that there was a workplace threat alert issued to the supervisors in the company and they were executing protocol to ensure the protection and safety of their employees by guiding them outside of the building to a predetermined safe location, you would be able to quickly recognize that the intent versus the impact of the communication as well as the urgent message was lost due to the way the supervisor engaged their employee.

Not all communication is well intended, but if we go on a positive assumption that most people do not set out to hurt or harm others in their communication exchanges with them in the workplace, then we could back up and reflect on this exchange and help these two individuals, who are now in conflict, manage the situation and move forward in alignment.

The supervisor had positive intent, but the style of abrupt directive communication to the employee immediately backed them into a defensive position. The employee could have qualified or clarified the message to minimize the negative impact, but also failed to do so allowing the message to be converted from something helpful to something hurtful.

When seeking to be more articulate and effective as a communicator, think before you speak. Analyze your message beyond the words alone, and determine if the context, tone, delivery method, and information will adequately and effectively transfer the intended message to the audience.

When you have doubt, consider modifying aspects of the message to enhance the change of effective delivery. In this situation, the supervisor may have experienced a more productive and positive exchange with the employee by altering how the message was delivered.

“We are experiencing a workplace emergency. To ensure your protection and safety, I am going to ask that you comply with established protocols and proceed quickly to the identified safe location outside of the building.”

We cannot force another person to experience our message in the manner we always want, but we can train ourselves to be more in tuned with our communication to others and focus on the important concept of intent versus impact.

This communication strategy should not only be considered reactively after you have offended someone or created unintentional conflict with your message. Instead, think before you speak, review and edit your written communication before you send it, and put yourself in the recipient’s shoes more often to determine if you are saying what you mean instead of meaning what you say.

** The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ownership or management of Chadds Ford Live. We welcome opposing viewpoints. Readers may comment in the comments section or they may submit a Letter to the Editor to:



About Warren Cook

Warren is the President and co-founder of SymbianceHR and provides strategic oversight for service delivery, business operations, and technical guidance on consulting engagements. He is a human resources subject matter expert with over 25 years of experience as a strategic human resources business partner, project manager, and people leader across private and public sectors organizations. Warren is responsible for the strategic planning of all client consulting engagements from initial needs assessment and compliance review through delivery of customized strategic solutions that meet the client’s business goals. He has a proven track record of providing executive coaching and guidance to business leaders and human resource professionals at all levels including the C-Suite of Fortune 100 companies. Warren is also the Chief Talent Officer and cofounder of SymbianceHiRe, a Symbiance company dedicated to providing direct placement talent acquisition services and temporary and contract staffing solutions to the business community. Warren holds a B.S. in Human Resource Management, an MBA in Project Management, and a M.S. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Warren is the author of “Applicant Interview Preparation – Practical Coaching for Today.”



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