What you want to do and what you actually do can often have an entire ocean separating them. Behavioural economists call it the “Intent-Action Gap,” but for the rest of us, it is more like what happens when life just takes its natural course.
I will have a black belt in karate by 2029 (no I won’t) but come 2029, I doubt anyone will hold me to account for it (please don’t; I can barely coordinate my limbs for anything). Saying it now gets my adrenaline going and the people around me rooting for my success, and hopefully has a few cowering at the ‘consequences.’ But alas, no matter my best intentions, it probably will not happen.
What we intend or mean to do as individuals or organisations and what actually gets done and takes root has a chasm between it that, as it grows, can be hugely detrimental to the culture and progress of a team. “I meant to get around to more team training and one-on-ones,” someone might confess, “but client work just sort of crept up on us.” Or, “We were going to launch more staff well-being initiatives but they haven’t been actioned yet as other matters came up that took priority.”
We see this quandary being questioned most right now when it comes to COP26, the commitments that countries have made and the tangible outcomes and progress shown. When we look at communication teams positioning great corporate “intent,” the stakes are arguably much higher when we don’t mind the gap.
The reality is that intent is pretty bankable from a reputation perspective. When an organisation announces support for a cause or a plan of action for anything (largely in the socio-economic space), be it agreeing to adopt a local school or deciding to proceed with a community investment, the very intent being publicised gains mileage. We score points in the reputation and publicity corner (depending on the weight of the announcement itself). But then 10, 15, 24 months down the line, the project may not take shape, but we don’t necessarily remember those promises unless we are the ones waiting for the yet-to-arrive support.
We got our coverage in the press, people praised our good intentions, and now everyone has moved on. But what happens to their reputation then when the proverbial other shoe drops for stakeholders? Promising something and failing to deliver on it can have implications on trust that may prove very hard to recover from. It is simply not worth it, even though the very best intentions were truly genuine at the time.
So how do we close the chasm between intent and action? Or indeed between intent and impact? Maybe intent should not be held in such high regard. Afterall, actions and impact speak volumes louder. Accountability, structure and impact have a much stronger role to play. According to Diane Osgood, when looking at how to close the gap for consumers, “Brands can help consumers close the gap by decreasing the effort, increasing the rewards or both.”
The same indeed applies to communications positioning and brand reputation management, to some extent? In our case, close the gap by increasing the commitment and resources and decreasing the barriers to progress.
Increasing the commitment
We are more likely to deliver and hold true to our word if our commitment makes sense: Does the promise align to our strategy and policies? Have we identified the returns and rewards and ensured they are the returns that we actually want?
Decreasing the barriers to progress
Remove bureaucracy and red tape that can make progress feel too far removed from us. Ensure milestones or goalposts between the current reality and the final outcome so we feel progress happening. Have we identified resources, both monetary and human capital? Have we outlined who will be responsible and accountable for following through?
If we understood what makes the gap exist and even grow better, we could work to ensure it never does. More commitment, less obstacles and a chasm that closes up for good. If not, we have a far bigger problem on our hands: picking up the pieces of damaged reputation for being “all talk” and “empty promises.”
As the saying goes (very loosely paraphrased), intention does not matter. You may have a heart of gold, but so does a hard-boiled egg. So closing the gap is about getting sh*t done and avoiding hard-boiled egg status.
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