For people to trust you, they must perceive that you have good intentions.
In the breakdown of the components of Trust—Character, consisting of Integrity and Intent, and Competence, consisting of Capability and Results—Intent forms the trunk of a tree. It springs up from the underground roots, partially hidden underground, but rising visibly above ground to support the Competence components.
From the viewpoint of others, behavior is visible, but intention is mostly invisible; therefore, people tend to judge our behavior and interpret it by assigning whatever intent they think that we have. When our behavior doesn’t meet expectations, they may easily assign bad intentions to us…but there are probably not many of us who believe that we ever have bad intentions!
Ancient Jewish sage Solomon observed this when he said, “All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the Lord weighs the motives.” A saying recorded in the US in 1885 explained, “It is not strange that we overestimate ourselves as compared with others, we judge others by their doings, but ourselves by our intentions.” Whether other people fairly or unfairly judge our intent, or whether or not we actually have intentions as pure as we think, it is nevertheless a key component of trust. Fortunately, there are ways to improve our own intentions, and to communicate them so that we can increase levels of trust as leaders.
The Role of Intent in Trust
As last year’s US presidential campaign was picking up with the summer heat, FBI director James Comey made a shocking and controversial announcement about an investigation into candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server in her official position as Secretary of State. Comey stated, “Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case…. There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent [emphasis added].”In other words, the director was saying that Clinton’s behavior could be excused because there was lack of a bad intent.
For Clinton’s political opponents, this did not sit well! Many tended to assign an ill-intent to Clinton’s actions, and thus strongly opposed the lack of charges. An ABC/Washington Post poll after that announcement found that 56% of those polled disagreed with the FBI, while some speculated that Comey himself had hidden intentions. This likely had an effect on trust in the institution, as a poll in December 2016 found that a mere 32% of adults had a “great deal”/ “quite a bit” of confidence in the FBI. The deterioration of trust in institutions based on perception of intent also affected the press.
Not long after the FBI announcement, Gallup released poll results exclaiming, “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low.” Specifically, and largely driving the drop, Republicans’ (who mostly opposed Hillary) trust of the media dropped from 32% to merely 14% in just one year. Why? Largely because they assigned a nefarious intent to the media, feeling that most of the reporters wanted to bolster Clinton and denigrate their candidate, including the business with the FBI investigation. This is not to say that Hillary Clinton truly had bad intentions regarding her actions with a private server, or that reporters were intentionally producing biased reports—the point is that the perception of the intent by that particular group assigned negative intent, resulting in a lack of trust.
We can understand what we mean by “intent” by looking at how it is defined in criminal law, but applying it to everyday life. Courts will look at both intent and action when investigating a crime. The consequences of a person’s actions–for example someone getting injured during the course of a robbery–are judged to have been intended if the suspect could have reasonably foreseen the consequences and desired the action to happen. Intent can further be broken down into direct intent, which means that one directly intends the particular consequence of an act, and oblique intent–a consequence occurs as a result of a voluntary act that one could foresee.
The intent behind our own actions, having nothing to do with criminal cases (we hope), can be broken down in the same way. Unlike other animals, driven almost entirely by simple stimulus and response, humans have the ability to project themselves and their actions into future scenarios, mindfully weighing possible outcomes. Based on that mindful consideration, we establish a desire to carry out a specific action.
Unfortunately, we may not always get the consequence that we want…as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The saying has come to mean that one can have excellent intentions, but actions from those intentions may not have the desired effect. Some have applied the phrase to government programs, such as those trying to eliminate poverty, which had opposite effects.
On a personal level, many who have dealt with a friend or family member with an addiction problem have experienced good intentions leading to bad results. Whether by refraining from words or actions out of respect for privacy, or by trying to step in and force the addict to some action, good intentions can easily backfire with undesired results.
Stephen M. R. Covey says in his book The Speed of Trust that motives of genuine caring are most effective for building trust. One test of a good leader is one who asks, “How’s your day going?” and then really listens and cares about the answer. But as the saying about good intentions and the road to hell remind us, motives of genuine caring need to pay attention to the actual results. When the leader listens with genuine concern about a subordinate’s response, the proof of that concern comes in the response, whether caring words or real assistance in dealing with challenges. With thoughtful consideration to all possible outcomes of our intended actions, we pave the road not to Hades, but to improvement of the individual.
Another aspect of the connection of intent and trust comes from Simon Sinek’s concept of “starting with why.” In one of the most viewed TED talks (filmed in September 2009 and currently with over 31 million views!), based on his book Start with Why, Sinek argues that companies, organizations and individuals motivate people to action by starting with explaining why they do things, rather than what they do or how they do it. He gives a biological explanation for the effectiveness, that motivation for action penetrates deeply beyond our analytical brain (the cortex) into our more primitive brain (the limbic system), which is closer to emotions such as trust and loyalty.
To put this another way, we get people to trust by convincing them of our intent—the motivating force behind our own actions. Sinek gives the example of how Apple has successfully shown game-changing leadership in personal computers, personal music players, and mobile phones by first explaining their reason for existence—challenging the status quo, thinking differently, empowering the individual. That is their intent, and it connects to consumers to make them feel Apple is authentic, a company they can trust.
When we explain the “why,” it connects people to our values and beliefs, and people trust others that share similar values and beliefs. It is similar to why we connect to people from our home regions, or why Mazda Miata owners form worldwide clubs. Just recently I met someone who had lived in my home state of Indiana; even though we were halfway around the world from there, and had just met, we immediately shared a common bond, and my first instinct was to trust this person. Of course, not everyone who we perceive to share the same values and beliefs will be trustworthy in the end, but the default reaction is trust. People will not give their trust if they suspect intentions, but explaining the “why,” or intentions, can generate trust.
Getting from Intent to Action to Trust
In order to build trust through intent, we can work on three areas.
1.Examining our own intent with the “Five Whys”
The first step to ensure our intent generates trust is to look inward. The Toyota corporation instituted a method for analyzing the root cause of incidents known as the “Five Whys.” As implied, it means taking some problem, such as a failure of an electrical system, and asking a series of “why” questions about the reason for failure. For example, the answer to “why did the electrical system fail?” might be because the fuse failed. Then one asks, “why did the fuse fail?” answered by “it was the wrong specification.” Then, “why was it the wrong specification?” and so forth and so on, until one finds the single cause that, if corrected, prevents the undesired result. Five is not a “magic” number for the number of iterations; it may take less or more questions to get to the root cause, and you may follow several tracks of “why” questions for the same issue.
Although they were concerned about fixing assembly line problems, we can apply the same method to our intentions. It’s important to start with your own intentions in this exercise, and not on solving a problem…you can use a separate process of Five Whys to solve a problem. Perhaps you are a leader in an employment service firm, and are considering demoting an employee who is in charge of handling clients’ job applications. You would first start by asking,
- “Why do I want to demote this person?”
- Perhaps it’s because “she works slower than her colleagues.”
- “Why do I think I should demote because of slow work?”
- “Because the company depends on servicing as many clients as possible, and her slow work is affecting profitability.”
- “If my intention is to increase profitability, why is demoting an employee helpful?”
- “Because I believe employees not meeting standards should have consequences.”
- “Why do I think she is not meeting standards…does she not know the standard, is she unable to meet the standard, or is she refusing to meet the standard?”
At this point you might investigate the actual problem of not meeting the standard.
- “Why is she slower than her colleagues?”
- “Because the clients are not cooperating with her in their employment applications.”
- “Why are the clients not cooperating?”
- “Because the male clients are not respecting her position as a woman”
In this case, you might find that your intention of disciplining someone that you perceive to be not meeting standards could be better replaced by addressing problems of sexism that are affecting your company. Focusing on the root intent–respecting your workers and ensuring company profitability—will build trust and avoid bad decisions. This example, by the way, comes from a recent real-life experience of a couple of employees of a Philadelphia company, whose little social experiment of switching male and female signature blocks exposed a potential sexism problem, which you can read about at Huffington Post.
2.Plan, Believe, Monitor
When we intend to do something, such as exercise for our health, we sometimes don’t follow through with our intentions, which can negatively affect our trust in ourselves as well as the trust of others. A team of researchers studied a group of patients who were recovering from coronary heart disease and were put on an exercise program to recover their health. Their study found that those who best closed the “Intention-Behavior gap” were those who made a plan for their exercise, who believed they were in control, and who monitored their own progress.
Believing that we have significant influence over the outcomes of our intentions, called self-efficacy, is an important aspect of fulfilling our potential. We may intend to do many great things, or even small things, but we risk failing on carrying out our intentions if we tend to have an attitude that blames outside factors, rather than firmly believing that we are in charge. With this positive attitude, we monitor our effort and performance against standards we set in the planning process.
In my thirties, I felt that I had really let my physical fitness fall to an unacceptable level. I made an intent to get back in shape, and made a plan to run my first marathon. It was a daunting task, and I made this decision less than four months before the event, but I convinced myself I could do it. I kept an Excel spreadsheet of my daily mileage (there were no helpful exercise apps back then!), and monitored my the days and mileage per week and performance in my pace. Successfully completing the 26 mile run greatly boosted my self-trust, demonstrating to myself that I could follow through on intended action.
Stephen M. R. Covey recommends “declaring your intent” as a way to improve the intent component of trust. He observes that communicating your intent “‘signals your behavior’ – it lets people know what to look for so that they can recognize, understand, and acknowledge it when they see it.” This is the equivalent of Simon Sinek’s admonition to “start with why.” As a leader, we may have to implement policies that are unpopular with the troops, but if we can get the troops to trust that we have the best intentions, they will follow. Explaining the “why” of doing something helps establish trust, much more than explaining the what or how.
In the military, when a plan for an operation is announced, it always includes a “Commander’s Intent.” According to the official publication of the US armed forces, “Commander’s intent is a clear and concise expression of the purpose of the operation and the military end state.” With this statement, all the people involved in the operation know and trust the overall objective, and can confidently carry out their duties. When you give your “commander’s intent,” you engender the trust of your colleagues and followers, and pave the path with good intentions toward their success!
Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.
 Edward Wigglesworth. Reflections. Boston, Massachusetts: Press of George H. Ellis. P. 10. (Available on Google Books Full View)
 Falko F. Sniehotta, Urte Scholz, & Ralf Schwarzer, “Bridging the intention–behaviour gap: Planning, self-efficacy, and action control in the adoption and maintenance of physical exercise”
 Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust, New York: Free Press, 2006, p. 87.`
 US Joint Chiefs of Staff (2010) Joint Publication 3-0 – Joint Operations. March 2010. Available at: https://fas.org/irp/doddir/dod/jp3_0.pdf