Intentions and Outcomes

What’s more important, intention or outcome?

This question tends to come up for me particularly when I’m feeling like I’m under stress. I am often informed that there is no reason for me to feel stressed about a situation, because even if the outcome was/is sub-optimal, the intentions behind it were/are good.

I’m almost always non-plussed by this logic. To me, it misses the point. I don’t spend very much time at all thinking about intentions. I find intentions to be confusing, vague, unclear–at the very least, complex and hard to understand. If asked point blank about a person’s intentions, I guess I’d say I assume they are good. But I might not even get that far.

It’s becoming a hypothesis of mine, though, that this is not how most people operate. Perhaps most people operate, and respond to others, based on what they think others’ intentions are. For example, I’ve had people try to defuse arguments and tense situations by analyzing the intentions of the people involved. I’ve also experienced justifications from people–sometimes quite elaborate–intended to illustrate their good intentions after I point out some unwanted outcome that occurred. The assumption in both cases seems to be that the injured party will be able to let go of the injury once she realizes that there was no intent to cause it. And then all will be well.

This strikes me as a curious and mostly wrong assumption. It does work pretty well if there was an actual misunderstanding about the outcome. If, for example, one person didn’t actually say or do what the other person thought she said. Your coworker did not, in fact, intend to ignore your important feedback. She really should have done what you laid out so nicely in that email. It would make both of your lives better. But, she just didn’t get the email. Her phone’s battery died and she was in transit between two important meetings, and by the time she could check, it was too late. She tried, her intentions were good. That works for me.

But what if you’re told your coworker did receive your feedback and ignored it, but you still shouldn’t be upset about the fact that now your life is harder? Because she ignored it with good intentions. She didn’t intend to insult or belittle your contribution by ignoring it. She really does respect your time and effort, but just not enough to read and respond to your feedback. You’re too sensitive about these things.

Maybe, but I still have to deal with the fallout of her ignoring my feedback. I still have to deal with the consequences and the outcome. Her intentions really don’t matter in that case.

Or when someone says something thoughtless and mean, something that hurts? And then backpedals that it’s just a joke. “I didn’t intend to cause offense. I’m sorry you took it that way.” As far as I can see, the only thing that can be done about people like that is to avoid interacting with them whenever possible.

I wonder if it’s scientific training that makes me place such a high value on outcome. Experiments don’t care what your intentions are. Experiments don’t care what you intended the outcome to be. Experiments are going to come out the way they come out. And a small but successful outcome is worth a thousand good intentions.

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