Signals and Actions

Signals of intent can be misleading indicators of future action and may lead away from our desired change.

They are everywhere: signals of intent. Whether it be protest slogans, adornments (e.g., face masks for illness), or public proclamations there are many signals of change around us.

It’s hard to go online without seeing some organization (business, government, or non-profit) virtue-signalling their beliefs, intents, and behaviours. The question is: what does it all mean for change?

When the stakes raise, so too does the need for evidence. This is as much about holding others accountable as it does ourselves, but it’s much more than that. The term ‘accountable’ can be harsh-sounding term as it is so often used in discussing punitive circumstances and, when that is the case, people tend to recoil. It’s one of the primary reasons (in my opinion) that the term ‘evaluation’ elicits such negative reactions in people when it comes up. It’s largely because evaluation often been done to us, not with us or for us. It’s about judgement. (Remember grade school? Your performance review?)

So is virtue-signalling: it’s about trying to get others to judge us in ways we want to be seen. It can also serve as a statement of intent — like saying “we’re here for you.” **

Stakes & Ladders

The stakes involved in signalling intent are higher than you might imagine.

The first is the most obvious: integrity. If you promise something and fail to deliver, you may be judged by the proclamation of intent you made. We see this with commitments to quality, diversity, and equity that are made by organizations in times of stress, opportunity, or something else who later fail to make the changes necessary down the road. Words need to lead to action.

The second is more subtle and a partial explanation of the previous point. Statements of intent can serve to thwart our plans for future action. Psychological research on intention, behaviour, and identity has shown that an outward statement of intent can actually lessen the likelihood of future change by prematurely convincing us that we’ve achieved what we set out to do — even if we haven’t.

Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer and colleagues looked at the role of implementation intentions, identity, and outcomes and found this:

When other people take notice of one’s identity-relevant behavioral intentions, one’s performance of the intended behaviors is compromised. This effect occurs both when the intentions are experimenter supplied and when they are self-generated, and is observed in both immediate performance and performance measured over a period of 1 week. It does not emerge when people are not committed to the superordinate identity goal.(p.616)

Gollwitzer, P. M., Sheeran, P., Michalski, V., & Seifert, A. E. (2009). When intentions go Public: Does social reality widen the intention-behavior gap?: Research article. Psychological Science, 20(5), 612–618.

This means that a well-intentioned statement of planned action may actually subvert our efforts to actually change behaviour.

What we also know is that small actions can produce large-scale change. Statements of intent can be problematic because we often speak in terms of large goals. Reducing our focus to small actions might be the way around this.

Evidence suggests that by committing to and executing plans on small tasks, consistently, provides a means to scaffold additional small actions upon. This provides a ladder (of sorts) or ratchet toward influencing a larger, more complex behaviour. These small actions are the foundation of habits and large-scale personal, organizational and social change.

Trusting Change

I’ve written about small actions and trust before. In times of uncertainty, trust becomes a critical currency for change-making. When we are less confident about what we are facing, what’s available, and what’s coming we rely on simple heuristics to build and sustain trust.

Evaluation — the monitoring and assessment of what we say, do, and accomplish — is a critical means to achieving trust. This does not need to be about ‘accountability’ in a harsh way, but as a means of providing feedback and learning to help remind us of what we say — and better yet, help us clarify reasonable intentions — and how we can link that to what we do and what we achieve. Without this, it is easier to say things and not do them and be left wondering why we didn’t accomplish what we set out to.

To use a current, persistent example consider systemic racism. In a provocative piece in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, writer and activist Vicky Mochama points to the myriad ways she sees (and hears) positive words from her white peers (ones that are filled with genuine intent) and yet sees little change. She writes:

I don’t know a single white person who does not believe systemic racism is real. In fact, for as long as I’ve been Black, white people have told me about racism….([then adds later]…When white people confess that they have seen racism, they are simultaneously denying their presence as witnesses and, crucially, as actors.

Vicky Mochama: White people know racism exists. Now it’s time for them to finally do something about it. Globe and Mail, June 5, 2020.

She points to the witnessing and, indirectly, statement of identity about whites not being racist, yet points to their belief in systemic racism and all its harms as a vehicle for inaction. It’s not that we can’t have both, but it is easy to trick ourselves into thinking that words, intents, and beliefs translate into real action. They are necessary, but they are far from sufficient.

If we are to trust our intentions we need to evaluate our actions. Only then will real change occur.

** – just type this phrase into a search engine and you’ll get a long list of organizations who are making this claim to the point of near parody (circa June 2020).

REFERENCES: Gollwitzer, P. M., Sheeran, P., Michalski, V., & Seifert, A. E. (2009). When intentions go Public: Does social reality widen the intention-behavior gap? Psychological Science, 20(5), 612–618.

Vicky Mochama: White people know racism exists. Now it’s time for them to finally do something about it. The Globe and Mail, June 5, 2020.

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