Intention Or Action: Which Counts?

Jul 31, 2015 1 Min Read


“Even a child is known by his actions.” – a Hebrew proverb

The reality of human nature is such that I tend to be lenient with myself and more exacting on others. Let’s face it – if given a choice, we would all rather be the judge of our lives rather than subject ourselves to an external standard that may not necessarily conform to our interpretation of the world around us.

Left on my own, my preference is this – I judge myself by my intentions and I judge others by their actions. Here then lies the source of most relational conflicts – we expect others to go easy on us while we lament that others are not doing what they should be doing.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with having good intentions, we need to understand that when it comes to the proper functioning of a society and organisation, we all need a visible reference point by which there is proper accountability for law, order and performance.

Imagine a country that is ruled by the intentions of its citizens rather than the produced actions. A thief caught stealing could plead his intentions by saying – “I steal because I need to feed my family, my intentions are noble but it is society which forces me to take this action, so in this case, you should judge me not by my action of theft but by my intention of wanting to provide for my family.”

Here are two possible “intention traps” that may dilute your organisational effectiveness:

Trap 1: ‘They don’t appreciate me enough’

Lack of appreciation ranks high as a major reason why employees leave. While it is valid that as human beings, we have a natural desire to be appreciated and affirmed, there is also the danger of falling into the trap of self-entitlement. Entitlement views appreciation as a right rather than the result of performance which meets or exceeds given expectations.

A self-entitled employee usually sounds like this:

  • Why do I keep getting jobs which do not measure up to my qualifications? A lot of what I am asked to do is so menial and routine, I am destined for greater things!
  • My parents would not speak to me like that. Why can’t people here treat me with more care?
  • Why am I always bypassed for promotions? What’s wrong with the system? It must be the politics.

I have no doubt that everyone turns up for work with the intention of wanting to do a good job – however, there is a world of difference between desiring to do a good job compared with delivering a great job.

For starters, the delivery of a great job entails agreed factors negotiated between supervisor and subordinate. Unless there is an attempt to negotiate the definition on how the actions look like, any fall back on good intentions would seem like a temperamental response.

A set of agreed delivery factors would include the following:

  • An understanding of the employee’s strengths.
  • A description of how success looks like (measurable and time-bound).
  • Availability of materials and equipment to do a good job.

Trap 2: ‘The boss always misunderstands me’

While it is ideal that we expect our bosses to have the ability to read minds and understand the emotional make-up of each employee under his or her care, the fact of the matter is that bosses also have their bosses to be accountable to as well.

So, much of the pressure you face is a result of the pressure your boss faces from his or her own boss. The principle is this – communication along the “corporate food chain” is clearly marked by milestones of targeted actions rather than persuasive intentions.

However, this is not to say that managers should not treat their employees as individuals. In fact, managers ought to provide opportunities for employees to do what they do best every day. That being said, the ownership for communicating job and career aspirations falls within the personal jurisdiction of the employee.

In other words, it is totally unrealistic for the employee to expect bosses to read minds and hearts. Your boss already has enough on his or her plate in terms of organisational performance to be also playing the role of a supporting psychologist.

The employee who does well does not assume that his or her intentions are automatically understood – in fact, employees who progress well in their career are those who act on their intentions, not just gripe about missed opportunities.

Act on your intentions

Here are a few tips:

  1. Review your job description regularly and suggest ideas to enhance your role. Do not feel limited to the current description of your role.
  2. Take time to understand your supervisor’s goals – make an effort to understand the pressure from his or her perspective. When you take time to understand others, they are then more inclined to do the same for you.
  3. Link your intentions with clear measurable outcomes. For example, instead of saying, “I just want to do a good job” (intention), rephrase it to an action-oriented perspective – “I have connected with the client to kick-start three projects for the next quarter”.

Conclusion – It is about personal accountability

Roger Connors, author of The Oz Principle – Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability defines accountability as “a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results”.

It is the commitment to making a set of right choices which will translate your good intentions into a series of great actions.

Intention without action leads to day-dreaming, whilst action with intention leads to drudgery – so in the final analysis, as human beings, we cannot escape from the emotions of intentions but we need to be aware that the world around us recognises the “currency” of action. Not just any action but actions that are well planned and followed through. Act on your intentions.

Joseph Tan is CEO of Leaderonomics Good Monday. His passion is to work with performance-focused leaders to capture the hearts and minds of their employees through a strengths-based and accountability-driven approach. Much of what is shared in the article above comes from his work as a Gallup-certified strengths coach. If you would like to enhance the engagement level of your organisation, email For more Be A Leader articles, click here.

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This article is published by the editors of with the consent of the guest author. 

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