January 23, 2021

Intent vs. impact: Closing the gap

Many of us are entering 2021 thinking more than ever about our contributions to inclusion and belonging at work. For organizations seeking to celebrate the diversity on their teams, cultivate a culture of belonging, or build more equitable systems, and for anyone trying to do their own part as individuals, understanding the impact-intent gap is essential.

The intent-impact gap in the workplace

The intent-impact gap is the space between what we mean by our words and actions and what others feel from those words and actions. This gap can be a minefield of misunderstandings and miscommunication. 

While miscommunication is sometimes inevitable, we can each raise our self-awareness to understand our knowledge gaps and take responsibility for any unintentional negative impact we have. By maintaining a commitment to constant learning, we can be more likely to stay engaged with systems-change work and less likely to get frustrated, defensive, or burnt out. 

Sounding the alarm on performative allyship 

The intent-impact gap often shows up in the form of performative allyship. In a recent webinar, “Creating Systemic Alignment Between Intentions and Impact,” Bravely Pro Hakemia Jackson gave this powerful call to action: “We are sounding the alarm on performative allyship.” 

The intent-impact gap is the space between what we mean by our words and actions and what others feel from those words and actions. 

“Performative allyship” happens when a company takes actions that look good on a superficial level, but ultimately make no real difference in the lived experience of those they purports to help. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, many companies made public declarations that Black Lives Matter. But in many cases, those same companies struggled or neglected to enact internal policies and structures that combat systemic racism. The public statement intended to show solidarity with a social movement and with Black Americans specifically. In many cases, the impact felt by those companies’ Black employees was that of an empty, hypocritical gesture.

Read more: “Supporting Black Employees: A Movement, Not a Moment”

Drop the judgment — it’s only hurting you.

The intent-impact gap is not a direct reflection of your moral character. Everyone is on a unique learning journey based on their own identities, cultures, circumstances, or environments. When engaging in culture work, especially DEI work, it’s imperative to set the question of “does this make me a good/bad person?” down at the door. Shift your thinking from the binary of “good” or “bad” to an affirmation that reinforces constant learning and bettering yourself.

Dion Bullock, DEIB Strategy Lead at Bravely, asks: “Are you going to continue moving toward the space of the status quo, or are you going to make decisions that are aligned with supporting the needs of the people?” Your impact is what will be remembered. Your impact is what can effect change.

Create pathways to repair

It’s normal to encounter knowledge gaps, especially in diverse groups of people. Letting the gaps slide tends to build tension and frustration, while setting norms for dealing with them creates healthier working environments. It’s up to a team to set those standards for itself.

To start the conversation, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • How does our organization address relationships that need repair? 
  • What are our pathways to conflict resolution?
  • How do my teammates create clear communication and space for dialogue to occur when harm has been done? 

Maintain perspective.

Bullock reminds us to “recognize that this [equity work] is not a favor to marginalized communities — not a nice to have, or because it makes your business feel good. This is alleviating and rectifying hundreds of years of oppression. People are not underrepresented by accident. They were historically excluded from your spaces. Your leadership team did not just become all white. The processes you have in place, the practices, the expectations you have for advancement within your organization- are all connected to whiteness.” 

If we aim to create a more inclusive workplace for all, we can start by committing to a consistent effort to closing the gap between our intentions and our impact. We do so by raising our self-awareness and commitment to learning. We minimize harm, and we commit to co-creating new ways to subvert systems of oppression. A workplace that doesn’t work for everyone works for no one.

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