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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: The power of our intentions

January 6, 2008
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Last semester, I started the first day of my two sections of Introductory Psychology as follows. After introducing myself, I asked each class of 500+ students to imagine my 50-minute lecture was over. “Now, please rate the learning experience you just had on a scale from zero to ten, with zero representing a useless and time-wasting class and ten reflecting a most valuable and inspiring experience.” I acknowledged this was a strange question and a difficult evaluation to make, but I urged them to humor me and write down their 0 to 10 rating.

Then I assessed my students’ ratings by a show of hands for each possible score. To my surprise, almost half the students in each class gave their experience a rating of five or less. In fact, the spread of scores was almost a normal distribution, with a majority in the middle (i.e. 4-7), and relatively fewer scores in the tails (i.e. 0-2 and 9-10).

I used this brief exercise to introduce the role of intention and expectation on our attitude and behavior. “You can use the self-fulfilling prophecy to your advantage or disadvantage,” I asserted. “Expect the best, and you’re more likely to get the best. With no prior experience in this class, why would you intend or expect a low score?” Then I explained the power of our intentions, as this article explains.

After the party’s over, will your resolutions stick?

Make your intentions explicit

Almost every self-help book and theory of human behavior gives intention a critical role. Some substitute “self-affirmation” or “expectation” for “intention,” but the meaning is the same. We are told to define explicitly what behavior we intend to perform and what attitude or mindset will accompany our behavior. In a real sense, this intention-setting experience becomes our “control panel,” exerting self-direction and purposeful action.

Share your intentions with others

With split-second self-talk, you can create deliberate intention before acting. For example, by telling yourself you intend to be upbeat, articulate, and considerate, you activate critical direction for interpersonal conversation. This increases the chances of achieving your intended communication. But should you state your intentions to others?

I bet you can list several advantages to telling others your intentions. Stating your intentions upfront prevents misunderstanding and puts everyone on the same page. Your public intention sets the tone of communication, provides direction, and eliminates guessing. This makes interpersonal conversation more productive.

Telling people exactly where you are coming from builds trust and enables others to rally around your vision, goal, or direction. Indeed, you can gain social support for your personal or professional plans when your team knows exactly what you intend to do.

Moreover, a public declaration of your intentions can be motivational. For example, when you tell others you intend to actively care more often for the safety of yourself and others, you are making a public commitment to behave in a certain way. Not only will this increase your commitment to live up to your conviction, it can activate peer support to help you reach your well-intended objective.

Clarify intentions after possible misinterpretations

Perhaps you noticed the last example in the sidebar accompanying this article is stated in the past tense rather than the present. The intentional statement is used to clarify a previous interaction rather than establish the tone of a subsequent conversation. How often have you experienced a communication, either on the sending or receiving end, which could have been misinterpreted because the intentions were not clear? If only you could go back and specify your intention or ask for a clarification of the other person’s intent.

During my keynote address for the Behavior Safety Now conference (September 2007), I publicly teased my good friend Aubrey Daniels for not participating in my body-language exercise. “Of course Dr. Daniels is just sitting there with his hands folded,” I quipped. “He doesn’t want to help another keynote speaker look good.” I said this entirely for humor and fun, and assumed my facial expressions and hand gestures gave this impression. My daughter, who introduced the keynote speakers at BSN, suggested my “picking on” Aubrey Daniels could have been misinterpreted. “After all, Dad,” she claimed, “many see you and Aubrey as competitors in the behavioral-safety world, and your public remarks about his non-participation could be interpreted as a public put-down. He had no opportunity to defend himself.”

Not for one second did I intend to belittle my friend and professional colleague. However, my daughter’s feedback opened my eyes to this possibility, and made me wonder about Aubrey’s intentions in a brief conversation we had after my keynote. Did I embarrass my friend? Was Dr. Daniel’s follow-up remark that I’m sounding more and more like an evangelistic preacher intended to compliment or denigrate?

Until reviewing my BSN keynote with my daughter, it never crossed my mind the dialogue between Aubrey and me was anything but friendly, well-intentioned banter between friends. Here’s a thought: How many of our well-intended communications are misinterpreted without our awareness. In other words, we might never realize our message was misunderstood or under-appreciated. The antidote to such miscommunication: Specify your intentions explicitly and clearly to yourself and to others.

To conclude

When stated explicitly to others, behavior-based intentions can direct conversation, build interpersonal trust and loyalty, make communication more purposeful, define and enhance ownership and self-accountability, and prevent misinterpretation. It seems most intra- and interpersonal conversations become more productive with an explicit intention. Tell yourself what you want to achieve before you act, and re-state your intentions after a conversation that could be misinterpreted.

So what does all of this intention stuff have to do with New Year’s resolutions? Well, an effective New Year’s resolution is an intention. It’s a personal commitment to behave in certain ways in order to achieve a desirable outcome. If you make your New Year’s resolutions specific, behavior-focused and public, they become self-directed purposeful intentions that set the stage for productive goal-directed action.

Here’s another connection to the New Year: How about choosing to use intentional statements more often? You could make a personal commitment to use daily self-talk to direct and motivate desired behavior.

For example, I intend to be more open, helpful and friendly, and to work toward continuous improvement. I also intend to show more moral courage for safety, meaning I intend to speak up appropriately if I see a stranger at-risk for personal injury.

How about you?

SIDEBAR: Reveal your intentions to build trust

Consider the trust-building advantages of stating the following intentions in the associated situations.
  • To a team of first-line supervisors or wage workers you say, “I want to get more engaged in preventing harm to our employees.”
  • Before reviewing the results of a one-to-one behavioral audit, you declare, “I want to help you prevent personal injury.”
  • At the kick-off meeting for a people-based-safety steering committee, you say, “My intention is to facilitate open communication, enable feelings of ownership, and cultivate a productive win/win relationship between all of us.”
  • After a verbal disagreement with a valued colleague, you assert, “My sincere intention is to rebuild interpersonal trust.”
  • After impulsively reprimanding a worker about his at-risk behavior, you add, “My intention was to actively care and prevent the possibility of personal injury to you and your coworkers.”

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